Faculty meeting sparks discussions about institutional identity

President Jim Brenneman announced in an all-faculty/staff meeting last Wednesday that for the first time in Goshen College’s history, this year’s first-year class is made up of more non-Mennonites than Mennonites.

This announcement has sparked discussion on campus about the future of Goshen College and its goals for enrollment. This “tipping point” in Mennonite enrollment comes at a critical time. The college is re-examining its identity through the lens of the national anthem debate, scrambling to maintain enrollment in tough economic times and marching forth with the “peace by peace” branding campaign, all while trying to retain current students.

At the meeting last week, Brenneman related some of the history of enrollment at Goshen. Enrollment was highest in 1971, when the school had around 1,200 students, 75 percent of whom were Mennonites. Since then, the number of Mennonites at Goshen has dropped while non-Mennonite enrollment has increased slightly. This year, 54 percent of the overall student population identified as Mennonite.

Lynn Jackson, vice president for enrollment management, said that at the faculty/staff meeting last week, “Brenneman reminded us that Goshen College is a vibrant place with lots of history and a great future. That future increasingly will be shaped by inviting students, regardless of denominational affiliation, to be a part of the Goshen College community.”

These pronouncements have raised questions for many faculty and staff about where Goshen College is headed. Doug Schirch, chemistry professor and chair of the Strategic Enrollment Management and Marketing committee at Goshen, emphasized that it’s not simply a matter of denomination. “We are looking for all students, Mennonite or not, interested in a college with our core values,” he said. According to Schirch, a desire for diversity at Goshen is a pretty much universal goal. This may include attracting students from a cross section of religions, ethnicities or nationalities; the essential thing is not that they are Mennonite, but that their values match with Goshen’s.

There is a tenuous balance, however, between appealing to a broad array of students and losing the school’s distinct Anabaptist identity. Keith Graber Miller, professor of Bible, Religion and Philosophy, said, “I’m hoping we can draw people into those core values without selling the institution’s soul. If we need to sell our institutional soul, there’s not much reason for us to exist. There are plenty of generic Christian colleges around.”

As the college moves forward in recruiting students, the institution must consider its future as a distinctive Anabaptist school with high academic standards and firmly held core values. According to Jackson, the college is increasing its admissions standards. Next year first-year students admitted to Goshen will be required to hold a 2.75 GPA—an increase from the current 2.6 standard.

In addition to increasing academic standards, Goshen must think about how to appeal to prospective students with similar values.

“I wish we would advertise more in peace and justice publications, and with denominational groups or faith traditions with whom we have affinities,” Graber Miller said. “The brand and our core values should be clearly communicated to all prospective students. They’re not just tacked on, they are who we are as an institution.”

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Written by Sarah Rich

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