Hesston College President Howard Keim announced late last year that after eleven successful years he has decided to move on from his role as the college’s leader.
Presidential appointments are never simple, and this one is certainly no exception, but to many involved this decision carries even more weight than a normal changing of the guard.
We, as a school and a denomination, are at a turning point. And as often as we pretend that the church (and to a lesser extent, schools) are devoid of politics, we must acknowledge that the choice of Hesston’s next president is one of the most intensely political decisions that will be made in the coming year.
Compared to this, Sanders vs Trump will be a side show.
The Mennonite Church–and Hesston College–are in the midst of a huge identity crisis. Our denomination is crumbling and our student composition is changing. Our new president’s opinions on these two issues are, in our current unfortunate reality, what will largely shape Hesston for years to come.
So let’s dive in.
First off, our the student body here at Hesston is changing in an undeniable way. Our numbers have fallen steadily over the past 37 years and continue to drop, with our current enrollment being 428, a full 267 students down from the landmark 695 students of the 1978-1979 school year, according to John Sharp’s A School on the Prairie. In addition, number of student athletes continues to rise and number of non-Christian and non-Mennonite students are also trending upwards.
Alone, none of these things are a huge problem, but together, they are creating a problem that must be addressed.
With only around 30 percent of students being Mennonite, key portions of the college’s vision are falling through the cracks. Though Biblical Literature, general education classes, and chapel do their best, the reality is that many students fail to come in contact with other faith traditions and can get away with knowing next to nothing about the beliefs of the denomination that guide their school. I freely admit that part of that failure rests on the shoulders of Mennonite students such as myself, but I have been incredibly disappointed in how little I have been pushed to grow in my Anabaptist faith while at Hesston. And, though I deeply desire more discussions on pacifism, service, justice, and separation of church and state, much of the campus feels as if these opinions are already being shoved down their throats.
This is where my fear of the changing student body springs from. When so many students are not Mennonite, or even familiar with the tradition, speaking from a point of social justice, pacifism, and Anabaptism is more than unpopular: It costs us students.
Our next president must address the growing divide in the perspectives of Mennonite and non-Mennonite students. Personally, I think we need to be more firm in our convictions and more willing to speak out for our historic positions, but this goal must be balanced with inclusion, diversity, and institutional success in terms of numbers.
Moving on, the next decision our president will have to face is the big one: What to do with a collapsing MCUSA.
The issue of how to handle homosexuality and the LGBTQ community is tearing my beloved denomination apart. Many churches are outraged, area conferences are leaving, and competing ‘networks’ such as Evana are springing up. MCUSA has done its best to keep the denomination together by passing forbearance resolutions and holding hundreds if not thousands of listening events, but at this point a complete split looks inevitable.
It is easy to frame Hesston as a hero or a villain based on one’s own position: Hesston is the only Mennonite College to maintain the church’s historical position on homosexuality or Hesston is the only Mennonite College to continue to discriminate against sexual minorities.
This is a lose-lose situation if there ever was one.
No matter what the administration does, significant portions of our student body and constituency will be alienated. Funding will be lost and numbers will continue to decline. It is no stretch to say the institution itself is in jeopardy.
Our new president must make a plethora of decisions from a business and spiritual standpoint, and then must be willing to deal with the consequences, but no decision they make will be larger than this one.
Finding a new president will be difficult. They will be playing with fire in the business and church world, and it is altogether possible–nay, inevitable–that they will get attacked and slandered by one group or another. Despite the challenges, I think Howard’s gracious tenure coming to a close has presented us with a unique and incredibly important opportunity: We get to pick a leader who will help guide our school–and our church–through troubled times. It is a vital, vital decision.
And students: we can make our voices heard in this process. Write and talk to those on the search committee. Find places to make yourself heard like at the listening groups that were held last week. We have an administration that likes to hear from us, lets take advantage of this and help choose our next president. With our input, God’s guidance, and a big dash of luck, I’m optimistic we will find the leader we need.
Caleb Schrock-Hurst is a Sophomore at Hesston College where he works as a Writing Assistant, Ministry Assistant, and Horizon contributor. He would like to study everything, but when forced to choose selected English, History, and Music. Outside of academics his main interests are tennis, Bernie Sanders’ political campaign, the global church, and Arsenal Football Club. Feel free to contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or find him on campus if you wish to exchange verbal or physical blows. (Editor’s note: Caleb Schrock-Hurst’s opinions are not necessarily those of the Horizon staff or Hesston College.)