I’m thankful that two Record articles and an editorial discussed the decision to eliminate the requirement that a majority, or any, of GC faculty be Mennonite. Admittedly, the previous policy was awkward to discuss. It risked portraying non-Mennonite faculty as second-best, tolerated, and maybe unwanted, when obviously they include outstanding practitioners of our core values. I’ve lived this awkwardness from the other side of the fence, having been a Mennonite professor at an orthodox Catholic college before coming to GC. They often had similar delicate discussions about faculty composition. However, through the gracious acceptance I received from Catholic faculty, and some revealing historical data, I came to understood why non-Catholic faculty like me needed to always remain a minority. Dartmouth, Wake Forest, Boston College, Princeton and more than a hundred other schools in the U.S. founded by religious denominations had distinctive characters that contributed to the nation’s diversity, but they eventually abandoned their religious roots. An extensive study of the reasons schools became more generic – regardless of whether they began as Catholic, Methodist, Presbyterian, Lutheran, Evangelical, etc. – found they all had made shockingly similar misjudgements.
One key, common factor in each school’s loss of identity was changing its faculty hiring policies. A requirement that a majority of faculty be from the school’s denomination was downgraded to only requiring new faculty to support the school’s central values (no, GC isn’t the first to think this could work). After a generation or more of gradual changes, new faculty had little reason to want the college tied to a denomination they didn’t belong to. Although the administrators and boards who had approved the faculty policy change were staunch believers in their denominations and confident the faculty policy change was harmless, they were long gone by the time events proved them completely wrong. Schools don’t keep their distinctive values once they start separating themselves from the denomination in which the values are rooted. A few exceptions exist, but that’s all they are: exceptions, not what is likely. If you are reading this, it’s probably because you value some ways GC is unique from most schools. That unique trait is not an accident. The author of the above-mentioned study (Fr. James Burtchaell) said in a 1999 speech that the reason Goshen College had bucked the tide and cultivated a unique, diverse religious identity was because it still had a denominational requirement for faculty. That is now lost. This is not an argument that GC would be a better college if 100% of its faculty were Mennonite. That much homogeneity is a certain recipe for failure. In fact, I think GC needs more faculty diversity in key areas. In the end, faculty composition is like a bread recipe. It’s not a matter of one ingredient being more important or essential; it’s about getting the right proportions. Random amounts of any ingredient don’t a good bread make. Increased diversity was a rationale for changing the faculty policy, but that could have been achieved by dropping the faculty Mennonite requirement from 80% to 70% or 60%. What is gained by eliminating any minimum percentage at all? When this was discussed and voted on at a faculty meeting last spring, faculty favored by more than a 3-to-1 margin keeping a majority Mennonite as opposed to no requirement at all.
The new policy wasn’t supported by faculty, history shows us what the unintended consequences are, and it sets a standard – 0% of faculty required to be Mennonite – that no one claimed was essential in the first place. Goshen College is adrift, and recent decisions to change the college display a desperation to try anything and everything to see if we get lucky. It’s unlikely we will. It’s more probable we are gambling away that which is essential.