President's Forum

Dr. James M. Harder
September 9, 2014

Thank you all for your presence this morning at the 2014 President’s Forum.  I always look forward to this event, which is the first regular Forum of the academic year.  It is my opportunity to share with you—members of this Bluffton community—some recent achievements and developments of Bluffton University, and to look forward at some things to come.  It is also my custom at this event to participate as a member of this active community of learners in sharing some of my own reflections pertaining to Bluffton’s annual civic engagement theme.  So now you know what to expect from me this morning.

This new academic year, Bluffton’s 115th, is only into its third week.  But already one can sense the energy, enthusiasm and excitement of a great year to come.  All of our athletic teams are into their seasons and showing great Bluffton spirit.  We experienced, during the orientation weekend, a longstanding Bluffton tradition as members of our athletic teams, other returning students, along with faculty and staff members, offered assistance during residence hall move-in.  Activities abound—the annual tradition of Sunday evening line dancing in the middle of Bluffton’s Main Street and the volleyball games played on the new sand volleyball courts installed last year as a Student Senate initiative.  And once again, the Bluffton Olympics for first-year students showcased almost unimaginable amounts of talent, bravery, skill, teamwork —and probably some blind luck as well.  Congratulations to all who participated and who dared to wear the toga and carry the torch!

Campus Enhancements
Returning students may have already noticed three enhancements to campus buildings that were completed over the summer.  The biggest project was the result of an opportunity provided by mother nature.  Remember that brutally prolonged cold winter we endured last year?  Across the creek in the Riley Court complex, a frozen water pipe on the top floor caused major water damage and the temporary closing of all three floors of Smucker Hall.  While repairing the damage over the summer, we took the opportunity to do some significant upgrades to the Admissions’ Office—creating a new, larger and brighter reception area and several new conference rooms for prospective student visits.  At the same time, the Financial Aid Office was moved from another building to its new convenient location directly across from Admissions.  And Admissions counsellors and office staff have new second floor offices, while faculty members in the history and religion department are enjoying newly refurbished offices on the top floor of Smucker.

The second significant project was a complete re-design of the front lobby of Bren-Dell Hall—creating a very different look and feel for a residence hall lobby at Bluffton.  It incorporates intriguing options for seating and connectivity, and has enhanced lighting and flooring.  Much of the funding for this renovation came from the 50th anniversary class reunion gift to Bluffton during last year’s May Day celebration.  We are grateful for this generosity for the benefit of current students from the Class of 1964—these alumni were sophomores at Bluffton when Bren-Dell was constructed.

The third summer improvement that will benefit all Bluffton students is the expansion and relocation of the Center for Career and Vocation.  The Center been moved from Riley Court to prime space just inside the front door of Musselman Library for your convenience, and to better accommodate its expanded services and staff.  I hope you all take advantage and avail yourselves of the full range of resources provided by the Center for Career and Vocation—and that you make your first visit there well before your senior year!

Creating Together
There’s one more important Bluffton initiative this fall that you will notice, if you haven’t already.  This initiative has been led by a task force of very creative people who have listened carefully to a wide range of staff, faculty and students during the past year. The question the task force has tried to answer is “How do we describe and explain the very special qualities of a Bluffton educational experience to more prospective students and to people who haven’t experienced it for themselves?”  In the student recruitment process, it can be hard to adequately describe a campus culture—how do you put so much into just a few words?

But now we believe we have some accurate and compelling new ways to answer this question.  Now, in many ways, big and small, you will begin to hear Bluffton University described as a special place for “Creating Together.”

What do we mean by Creating Together?  It’s what our research has led us to believe Bluffton students already experience here.  Creating Together is about Bluffton’s ability to combine things in many different ways to meet student needs and interests.  It is about bringing people and ideas together for a greater purpose than either could have created alone.  Creating Together is about an education that is strong on both liberal arts foundations and career-related practicality, one that develops both head and heart, and that fosters both our physical abilities and our spiritual growth.  Creating Together is Bluffton’s style of producing a total educational experience that is not something that is done for you or to you, but with you.

Another shorthand way of saying all of this is that a Bluffton education draws from the Power of Purple.TM   Just as red and blue come together to create purple, a Bluffton education combines many positive things for students in rich ways.  In the past several days, awareness of The Power of Purple at Bluffton has developed on various social media platforms.  One tweet described The Power of Purple with this wonderful photograph of our cheerleading squad at a recent practice, along with the words, “Teammates have each other’s backs in and out of the classroom.  #powerofpurple, #BlufftonU”.

And because we are an organization focused on continuous learning, we desire to continue to work to make Bluffton an even better experience.  During the coming year, we will be inviting groups of faculty, staff and students to do their own Creating Together on a number of projects that will further strengthen Bluffton’s educational experience.  They will be looking at things such as possible refinements to our General Education program and internship opportunities, at how we handle conflict, at how we might increase the campus community’s participation in each other’s events, and how we connect with our alumni.  As a kick-off to the new Creating Together initiative at Bluffton, each of you will be receiving a Power of Purple wrist band after Forum ends today.  Please check your mailboxes on your way to lunch and talk with someone about what the Power of Purple means to you!

Education Matters!
It is my custom at the President’s Forum to offer some of my own perspectives on Bluffton’s annual civic engagement theme, and I turn to that now.  “Education Matters! Learning for Life, Vocation and Responsible Citizenship” is Bluffton’s eighth civic engagement theme since the first one on environmental stewardship during the 2007-08 school year.  This year’s theme is timely, because topics related to educational policy are often in the news these days at the national, state and local levels.  There’s great discussion and debate about educational outcomes in America as compared to the rest of the world, the changing educational needs of the future labor force, new teaching approaches and technologies, expectations related to teacher performance and student assessment in the classroom, the rising costs of education, and in many states and localities, the uncertainties of public funding commitments to education.

Throughout the year, I expect that many of these topics will be explored in classroom settings and in various other civic engagement events.  This morning, I want to offer some of my own perspectives on our Bluffton education and how it is situated within the history and current reality of education and the liberal arts.

You have chosen to invest your college years at a place that offers what we believe is a very rewarding, relevant, useful and growth-producing total educational experience.  Bluffton’s stated institutional purposes at the undergraduate level are:

  • To provide a superior program in the liberal arts emphasizing individual inquiry, critical thinking and lifelong learning;
  • To provide superior preparation in a select number of professional areas as an integral part of the liberal arts program;
  • To integrate the Christian expression of outreach, service and peacemaking into not only the curricular and co-curricular programs, but the daily life of the campus community; and
  • To contribute to the intellectual, cultural and spiritual welfare of the local, national and global communities.

That’s the formal version of what Bluffton is about.  In shorthand, it means that we create together with you an educational experience that prepares you very well for gainful employment through all stages of your life with abilities and perspectives that employers value.  We create together with you a campus community that draws its moral inspiration from the life of Christ in activities of outreach, peacemaking and service to others.  And third, we create together with you a desire to become life-long contributors to the welfare of our local, national and global communities.

Granted, these are big goals for your education.  They are not easy or simple.  But the payoff of this type of education is huge—both directly for you, your family and community and for the needs of the world in the years ahead.  As Bluffton’s 2014 civic engagement theme states, education does matter—for life, for vocation and for responsible citizenship.

Yet during this time of general economic belt tightening, the rising cost of college education has come under increased scrutiny by many who ask if it’s still a good financial investment to make.  Others look at changes in the job market driven by new patterns of global competition and technology and question whether a liberal arts education is as applicable as it once was.  Many are struggling to figure out the effective—and the ineffective—uses of the ever-expanding internet world of digital information technology. 

These are indeed times—perhaps without precedent—of rapid change throughout society for any number of reasons.  Colleges and universities, by their very nature, are at the forefront of studying and providing greater understanding of these forces.  During this time of public scrutiny of the educational process itself, it is appropriate for the academic community to join that conversation.   

Liberal Arts Education
A liberal arts education has a long and highly respected meaning in the world of higher education.  This is the type of education experienced by students at Bluffton.  The first-year students here this morning already know this from their reading of the book What the Best College Students Do, by Dr. Ken Bain, our opening Convocation Speaker—now an amazing two week ago!  As he explains in his book, “liberal” comes from the Latin term liber, which means “free.”  In the ancient world, the free citizens of a Greek or Roman democracy (that excluded the slaves) were privileged with a “liberal” education to provide them with the moral and intellectual preparation they needed to function as leaders of their society.  In the modern version of this liberal education, as Bain notes, students explore “a host of disciplines from the sciences to the humanities, taking a deep approach to important issues that those disciplines could help them address.”

So a good liberal arts education is one that teaches students about the natural world and the sciences.  It teaches students much about the human condition—through the study of the humanities, the arts, history and the social sciences.  And particularly at faith-based schools like Bluffton, it acknowledges the importance and influence of the spiritual dimensions of life, through the study of religion and moral foundations.

A good liberal arts education, as Dr. Bain also notes, develops the tools needed to deal with complex issues and to better understand our complex world.  It requires that as learners “we push ourselves, that we keep building and rebuilding, questioning, struggling, and seeking.”Such processes of deep learning give students the tools to take responsibility for their own learning—both in college and later in life—rather than being fully dependent on the assumed wisdom of some external authority.

Sometimes, through this process, we encounter new situations or new evidence that causes us to begin questioning our assumptions and our previous understandings about something.  This is an important skill to learn.  Galileo, the great Italian physicist, mathematician, philosopher and astronomer, is credited with saying “Doubt is the father of invention.”  Discovery of a new truth often begins with the process of doubt, whether in the science laboratory or in other areas of life.

As Andrew Delbanco, a distinguished professor of humanities at Columbia University observed at a recent meeting of university presidents I attended, “One of the hallmarks of a liberal arts education is developing the ability to change your mind.”  In Delbanco’s view, a good college liberal arts educational experience functions as a “great rehearsal space for democracy,” requiring speaking with civility and respect, and learning the difference between holding a personal “opinion” about something compared to making an “argument” for something that is based on evidence.  In that sort of growth-producing educational environment, a person can “walk into a room with one position on an issue and leave with another, or at least leave with some seeds of doubt.”

It strikes me that this ability to evaluate the quality of information for oneself is increasingly important.  On my summer reading list was a book by statistician Nate Silver, The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail--but Some Don’t.  One of his major points was that up until recently, in the era dominated by books and printing presses, information was still a relatively scarce commodity.  The difficulty was to find it and to get your hands on it—and perhaps, to be able to afford it.  All of that has changed in recent years, with the rising dominance of the Internet and the Google search era.  Now, as Silver suggests, “Information is no longer a scarce commodity; we have more of it than we know what to do with.  But relatively little of it is useful.  We perceive it selectively, subjectively, and without much self-regard for the distortions that this causes.  We think we want information when we really want knowledge.”

These days the Internet makes it possible to find almost unlimited amounts of information almost immediately and almost without cost.  But as Nate Silver appropriately observes, it doesn’t make wisdom any quicker or easier to attain.  Sound education and life experience in addition to quality information are the ingredients for effective problem solving.

Finally, a good liberal arts education, particularly today, has a strong emphasis on global learning—on learning about the full range of cultural diversity in the world, about other religions, and about developing competency in cross-cultural relations.  Your Bluffton education offers you many such opportunities for global learning.

This past summer, the Council of Independent Colleges (CIC) issued a study report titled “Securing America’s Future: The Power of Liberal Arts Education.”  This information sheds some interesting light on the current national debate about the importance and effectiveness of various models of higher education.

The report offers abundant evidence that a liberal arts education makes a difference—for those who receive it and for the society we live in.  It has strengthened America by educating generations of engaged citizens who have helped our nation keep its promise of personal growth and opportunity for all.

The report documents that liberal arts colleges produce graduates who are well prepared for personal and professional success.  For example:

    • Graduates who studied the liberal arts have the broad knowledge that most employers—80 percent in a recent survey—say they want their employees to have.  A. G. Lafley, President and CEO of the Procter & Gamble company, observes that “Developing one’s mind is no different from developing a strong body:  exercise and, specifically, cross training.  By studying art, science, the humanities, social science, and languages, the mind develops the mental dexterity that opens a person to new ideas, which is the currency for success in a constantly changing environment.”
    • The overwhelming majority of employers—93 percent—believe that a college graduate’s ability to think critically, communicate clearly and solve complex problems is more important than his or her undergraduate major.  In other words, such forms of deep learning pay off in the long run, no matter what you study, and it’s a mistake to think of college as a time of preparation for only a single job.   This is especially critical since today’s worker can expect to have many different jobs over a lifetime.  One study of young Baby Boomers showed that by age 46, they had already held an average of 11.3 different jobs.
    • In purely financial terms, completing a Bachelor’s degree is still a very good investment.  The lifetime levels of compensation for four-year college graduates remain significantly higher than for high school graduates or associate degree holders.  Plus, in any economy, the unemployment rate for those with Bachelor’s degrees is considerably lower than that of the other groups.
    • And finally, students from small liberal arts colleges also contribute to the public good.  Studies show that as young adults they are nearly three times as likelyto serve as volunteers, and nearly twice as likely to vote.  And a college education is also associated with numerous non-monetary personal benefits.  This includes an overall sense of greater personal wellbeing, job satisfaction, better personal health, success in marriage and wider-ranging social interaction.  Education matters!

Another public misperception about private liberal arts higher education is that it’s not financially accessible and not as inclusive of all types of students when compared to public institutions.  The CIC study shows that in fact, the opposite is more likely to be the case.  For example:

    • Smaller private colleges actually enroll a similar proportion of minority students as public universities, but graduate them at higher rates and in shorter average periods of time.
    • First generation students who enroll are considerably more likely to graduate from a smaller private college—70 percent of the time, compared to a 57 percent graduation rate from public universities.
    • And students are twice as likely to receive tuition grants than at public universities, with the average institutional grant three times larger than that at public universities.  The fact that, on average, students graduate from private colleges 10 months sooner than do their peers at public institutions also helps level the cost differential.

Indeed, education matters.  At Bluffton and at other quality liberal arts colleges, students encounter top-quality teaching, small classes, and activities that engage students.  As the CIC study notes, these students are more likely to have supportive relationships with faculty members, receive prompt feedback on their academic performance, and continue discussions of course material with faculty members outside of class.

You are in a good place for your college education.  Bluffton is a place for “creating together.”  On a daily basis we realize the Power of Purple.  Just as red and blue come together to create purple, at Bluffton we create together with you a liberal arts approach to learning that is also great career preparation.  We create together with you meaningful connections between head with heart, between personal faith and an ethic of service to others.

Sciences at Bluffton
This type of education has been part of Bluffton’s reality since its beginning.  In the time I have remaining, I want to illustrate that point as I focus on a slice of Bluffton’s history and a current major initiative pertaining to the science program at Bluffton.

Last spring, Bluffton’s Board of Trustees adopted a new comprehensive facilities master plan for the university.  That plan has identified a new science building as our next major new academic building project.  This building is to be a new home for our growing natural sciences, mathematics, dietetics and health-care related programs.  Please don’t go looking for the earth-moving equipment any time soon—these sorts of projects take a year or so of careful planning followed by a period of fund raising before construction can begin.  But the direction has been set, and that’s exciting for Bluffton!  The exact location of the new building on campus is still to be determined, but a prime possibility is somewhere in the vicinity of where Lincoln Hall now stands.

This will actually be Bluffton’s third science building.  The first one was built in 1914, when Bluffton was just 15 years old.  That three story red brick building in the colonial style of architecture, which is called Berky Hall today, still stands near the main north side entrance to Centennial Hall.  When the original science hall opened, science instruction at Bluffton took a great step forward with its dedicated laboratories and class rooms for chemistry, physics, biology and home economics.  It was a modern building for its day with a grand staircase entrance on the south face.  The lowest level contained what were initially three rooms for the young college’s agricultural education program, which was discontinued a few years later.  There was even an outside door and an entrance for bringing cattle into one of those rooms and a separate room for storing animal feed.

The original Science Hall served Bluffton’s science education needs for 63 years.  During those years, science itself evolved dramatically.  Albert Einstein published his theory of general relativity just one year after the building opened.  Pluto was discovered in 1930.  The first transistor was invented in 1947.  Jonas Salk developed and tested the first polio vaccine in 1952.  And Bluffton’s science faculty and students incorporated all of these advances in knowledge, and many more, into their teaching and learning.

At various times during those years, the building also provided space for other campus functions.  For example, by 1955, the lower level included offices for campus student publications, and the third floor incorporated some piano practice rooms and a speech studio (and eventually the campus radio station).

By the late 1960s, advances in the teaching of science created the need for a new science building on our campus.  The 1960s were the years of significant federal funding for science education as a consequence of the Cold War.  Bluffton’s current longest-serving faculty member, Professor of Chemistry and Physics Mike Edmiston, still has a scale model of a hexagonal-shaped three-story science building that was envisioned for Bluffton during that time.  Significant federal funds for this building were reportedly included among many other projects in a Congressional funding bill sent to President Richard Nixon for his signature.  But apparently, at the last minute, President Nixon froze the bill’s funding after becoming frustrated with student protests and unrest on the nation’s college campuses during the turbulent years of the Vietnam War.  One can imagine the difference in Bluffton’s campus today had President Nixon signed that bill instead.

It took the college until 1978 to find the resources to complete the present Shoker Science Center, a smaller single floor version of the building.  Yet it still provided 11,000 square feet of modern science education space, retaining the building’s original hexagonal shape.  It was constructed below ground level, dug into the hillside south of Founders Hall, to conserve heating and cooling energy—a cutting edge environmentally-friendly design strategy from the 1970s. The building also incorporated the latest in science teaching methods from that period, featuring integrated laboratory facilities for biology, chemistry and physics students and space for a dedicated science library and study area surrounded by science faculty offices.

Now, only 36 years later, it is already time to begin planning Bluffton’s third-generation science education building.   It will be interesting to watch that process unfold and to see how the facility is designed to meet the needs of future science-related education at Bluffton.

As Bluffton’s president I would be remiss if I didn’t remind you that great facilities alone are insufficient for quality education.  Also required are great faculty and staff.  Two of Bluffton’s longest-serving and legendary faculty members were both in the sciences, and I will close by briefly describing their contributions to liberal arts education on this campus.

Two Special Teachers
A young professor H. W. Berky came to Bluffton to teach physical science in 1913, following his graduation from Princeton University.  He inspired multiple generations of Bluffton students in the classroom and laboratory before retiring 45 years later in 1958.  During that time, his other involvements at Bluffton drew him into all facets of campus life.  He served as dean of men, as athletic coach for all sports at the college until 1922, and as tennis coach until his retirement.  He was the living embodiment of “creating together”!

Professor Berky taught by the Socratic method of asking questions, and was very good at stimulating students’ curiosity.  He is credited with introducing Bluffton’s first real interdisciplinary course, the general science course in 1925.  Perhaps he is best known by the many Bluffton students because of that popular course, which Dr. J. Richard Weaver, one of his teaching contemporaries, recalls “was a survey of the physical and biological worlds in which evidence for the existence of God was systematically explored.”  Professor Berky’s own teaching memoir states his firm belief that “Every field of knowledge then becomes an open door through which the student can make the acquaintance of God and through which God can call upon the student.”

For most of his teaching career at Bluffton, Professor Berky taught alongside a second science faculty legend, Miss M’Della Moon.  Professor Moon began her teaching career at Bluffton in 1921, “at a time when few women taught in the field of science.  English, music, and elementary education were acceptable areas [at that time] for women professors, but here was a woman who could coach men’s basketball and teach biology,” her biographer notes.

When Miss M’Della Moon was added to the faculty she became “contagiously infected” by a love for plant life of all types on Bluffton’s beautiful natural campus, “which continuously rubbed off on her students.” In her greenhouse she nurtured exotic plants, and current science faculty can still recall seeing the alligator she kept in a tank on the top floor of the old Science Hall.

One of her faculty colleagues, Carl M. Smucker, recalled her first love of biology.  “She could get emotional about trees,” he observed.  “She loved that stuff, and taught that way, and the [students] she taught learned to love it too.”   President Lloyd Ramseyer commented on how Professor Moon’s faith infused her teaching.  “The more she learned about the laws which govern nature, the more love and respect she had for the one who set these laws in motion and continued to be the ruler of His creation…As she taught, she conveyed this faith to her students.”

Professor M’Della Moon ended up teaching science at Bluffton for 40 years, retiring in 1961.  The following year, a new dormitory was opened on Bluffton’s campus.  Bren-Dell Hall carries a name that honors Miss M’Della Moon and a second pioneering female member of Bluffton’s early faculty, Naomi Brenneman, who served as Professor of English for 43 years from 1918-1961. 

It is faculty members such as these—and there have been, and continue to be, many others over the years—who provide the inspiration for deep learning in the Christian liberal arts tradition of Bluffton University.   M’Della Moon reflected upon this goal in her own memoir, speaking of a teacher’s goal to “touch off the spark which sets the mind afire, [so] the student ceases to study because he feels he must, but rather seeks avidly for the truth because he wants to know.”

From that base of understanding, awareness, and inspiration, you will be well prepared, in the words of Bluffton’s cherished mission statement, “for life as well as vocation, for responsible citizenship, for service to all peoples and ultimately for the purposes of God’s universal kingdom.”