Three alumni presidents of Mennonite colleges consider the unique contributions of a Christian liberal arts education.

Through the end of June 2012, Bethel was in the unique position of having three alumni serving as presidents of other North American Mennonite colleges.

Gerald Gerbrandt '68, who retired June 30, was president of Canadian Mennonite Bible College in Winnipeg, Manitoba, from 1997-2003. He played a key role in the transition of CMBC and two other institutions into Canadian Mennonite University in 2003 and served on a team of three presidents before becoming CMU's first sole president. He was also interim president of Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary 1995-96.

James M. Harder '78 taught business and economics at Bethel for 11 years and then moved to Bluffton (Ohio) University. He was a professor of economics and held several administrative positions before becoming president of Bluffton in 2006.

Like the others a graduate of the oldest Mennonite college in North America, Susan Schultz Huxman '82 is now the newest president (since 2011) of the youngest Mennonite college in North America, Conrad Grebel University College, chartered in 1961 as an affiliate of the University of Waterloo, Ontario. Susan delivered the commencement address to Bethel's Class of 2011, which included her daughter, Julia.

Bethel's mission statement says, in part: Bethel seeks to be a diverse community of learners, committed to the search for authentic faith and empirical understanding, and to provide (1) rigorous instruction in the liberal arts and selected career and professional areas; and (2) intellectual, cultural and spiritual leaders for the church and society. With that in mind, Context asked the three alumni presidents to consider the following questions.

Context: How did your Bethel education help prepare you for your role as president of a Mennonite college?

GG: Bethel College was my entre into the world of American church-related liberal arts colleges, an institution quite foreign to Canada. Although I was at Bethel only for one year, that year had a major shaping influence on me. I experienced the tremendous value and strength of a faith-based institution involved in general university studies, and of doing this in a somewhat interdisciplinary manner, not fashioned entirely by the needs or traditions of a narrow discipline or field of study. That model very much impacted me as I was involved in the transformation of Canadian Mennonite Bible College into Canadian Mennonite University.

JH: I was most fortunate as a Bethel student to be mentored and influenced by several faculty members who were significantly involved and connected to the Mennonite world including, but also far beyond, central Kansas. Anna Juhnke (professor of English) connected me with future leadership roles in the General Conference Mennonite Church. Fremont Regier '57 (professor of international development) inspired and connected me with Mennonite Central Committee and possibilities for overseas service. And Robert Kreider '39 championed inter-Mennonite relationships and identity, and the importance of the broader world of Mennonite institutions.

SSH: You don't realize it when you're there, but Bethel's culture - its people - nurture, prod and validate high aspirational expectations of its students, especially in terms of academic achievement, character-building and service to community. My four years (1978-82) really could be viewed as a kind of incubator for learning how to navigate many of the larger challenges of life and to juggle a diverse workload and workplace. You get exposed to and are expected to engage with so many different ideas, people, lifestyles, events and opportunities. I don't ever remember that settling for good enough was an option - in the classroom, on the tennis court, on the stage, etc. At the same time, there was very little public rah rah over personal achievements. This combination of relentless pursuit of high aspirations combined with a personal humbleness and a desire to serve others is a good recipe for surviving and thriving as a college administrator.

Context: From your perspective, what is a Bethel College distinctive?

JH: I came from a large urban high school in Seattle. Bethel was a refreshing change, where I worked closely with my professors, experienced a range of student leadership opportunities and developed relationships that would last well beyond my college years.

SSH: Bethel still waves the flag of making connections as opposed to the flag of making compartments. Bethel prizes critical inquiry in its broadest sense - the pursuit of intellectual connections, faith connections, social connections, etc. - as its highest good. This was the original understanding of what it means to be liberally educated from the Enlightenment. Many small and large universities have long ago traded the essential ingredients of a broad-based liberal arts education for specialization and professionalization - attending to first-job readiness programs as opposed to lifelong skill sets that inform and enable diverse careers, vocations and personal and relational growth.

Context: What do you see as the major challenge facing Mennonite colleges today?

GG: As is the case with most other post-secondary institutions, Mennonite colleges struggle with insufficient financial resources. The difficulty of recruiting the right students is huge. These are and, I anticipate, will continue to be the most visible challenges for Mennonite higher education.

More foundational, however, is the challenge of remaining a Mennonite college or university in the face of all external pressure to become generic. One aspect of this is the responsibility to serve students from the Mennonite community in a way that encourages them to be contributing members of that community, even as we are welcoming and hospitable to all who wish to study at our school and as we encourage genuine, open conversation about any and all issues.

JH: I believe that Mennonite colleges have an excellent and important mission supported by caring and skilled faculty and staff. We know that Mennonite college graduates have played a very significant role in the support of congregations, church-wide institutions and other organizations. We know that the world needs more Mennonite college graduates infused with Mennonite/Anabaptist values. The challenge is to continue to be able to convince potential students, their families and supporting congregations that these outcomes matter and cannot as effectively be replicated in many other higher educational settings.

SSH: We need to hit the Refresh button in these uncertain times and in our cluttered educational landscape. By that I mean we must articulate anew what our deliverables are - how they are distinctive, measurable and, especially, valued in concrete ways by the church and the larger workplace in managing complexity, connectivity and conflict; that we are cost-effective; that we rely critically on financial contributions; that we embrace change - the church and higher education are changing and we can either dig in our heels or lead the revolution. Then we need to learn how to make that case persuasively and cheerfully via multiple communication platforms to our many diverse stakeholders to invite participation and buy-in.

Context: What do you see as the unique role of a Mennonite college in preparing leaders for church and society?

GG: I believe Mennonite colleges and universities do have a special responsibility to inspire and prepare leaders for church and society. We do this by instilling in our students a sense of the Mennonite tradition, including its historical and cultural elements, but especially its theological sensitivities.

Additionally, I see us having the responsibility to raise among our students the question of whether God is calling them to a leadership role within the Mennonite church. These apply largely to students from within our tradition.

But beyond this, we also have the role of drawing the attention of all students, Mennonite and others, to our historic concern for peace and justice, a concern we do not see as a Mennonite distinctive, but one which all leaders in our society should share.

JH: Increasingly, our Mennonite colleges recognize the importance in today's church and today's world of preparing leaders who can function outside of homogeneous communities. Our education must provide future leaders with skills and perspectives that are relevant in settings of diversity - racial, ethnic, religious, economic and geographic. Expanding horizons and comfort levels in such ways requires deliberate institutional choices in staffing, curriculum design, student recruitment and student life programming.

SSH: The evidence remains quite compelling that if a student attends a Mennonite university, they are much more likely to remain in the church and provide leadership of all kinds (pastoral, financial, choral, youth, outreach, etc.) in their church. In the Christian church, where membership is dropping fast in North America, the need to stem the tide is more critical than ever. A Mennonite education is one excellent remedy.

In the larger society, the voice of peace, community-building and Christ-centered discipleship is often marginal and counter-culture especially in business and government. Graduates from Mennonite institutions can give voice to a peace and justice perspective and they are - from Wall Street (and Bay Street) to the halls of Congress and Parliament/Queens Park and around the globe.

Context: What personal story/memory/experience from your days as a student (or professor) at Bethel would surprise your current students/colleagues?

GG: I will give two, one academic and one other. First, I will never forget April 4, 1968, the day Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. Word of the assassination came to us in the middle of our evening social science senior seminar. The professors immediately changed plans and led us in a discussion of how charismatic leadership tends to be replaced by institutional leadership when the charismatic leader leaves the scene. They predicted this was likely what would happen with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. How right they were. Here was a wonderful model of teaching.

Second, I share an experience from community life. I was a senior at Bethel during the inaugural year of Warkentin Court. Most module groups were formed by friends who chose to live together. Our module consisted entirely of transfer students. None of us knew any other Bethel students prior to registering. This contributed to our forming a special bond among us.

One of our goals became to create as many student clubs as possible. Two we formed were a Circle K Club and the Bethel Cinema Club. In order to make use of Bethel facilities, the Bethel Cinema Club needed to have a public structure. After developing a proposed constitution - which, by the way, allocated profits to club directors - and receiving authorization from the Student Council to form this club, we announced an organizational meeting to elect directors for the club. Perhaps not surprisingly, no one other than those from our mod showed up at the organizational meeting, strategically called for 5 a.m. one Saturday. Quickly we elected ourselves to all the leadership positions, and the club was official. During the year, we brought a number of movies to campus and even managed to make a few dollars.

JH: While a Bethel student, I was a member of an extended friend group that referred to itself as The Contingency. From time to time, we organized social activities and/or group field trips. But what I remember most fondly was the cherished tradition of slide shows (the old-fashioned Kodak kind) following any member's personal travel to distant places. These lengthy - and often embellished - illustrated lectures were inevitably held very late at night to avoid conflicts with studies and other college commitments.

SSH: My whole mod went in costume as killer bees to dinner for Halloween my junior year. I spent more time getting that costume ready than studying for an exam. It was worth it!

I almost didn't get all my convo credits my senior year (partly because I was away on forensics and tennis trips a lot), so my mod-mates created a banner out of the blue and pink convo computer cards we had at that time that said: Convo or Moby Dick! and hung it on my door. The penalty for not attending a sufficient number of convocations was to read Moby Dick and write a book report.