EMU is a wonderful school and does a fairly satisfactory job across the board. I have thoroughly enjoyed my time here, but there is one marketing slogan that rubs me the wrong way pretty consistently.
We are far from a Christian university like no other. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of small liberal arts colleges with increasingly less tangible connections to their denominations beginning to wake up and wonder where the students went.
There are hundreds, if not thousands, of picturesque campuses full of bright minds hoping to learn a bit more about the world before settling down to desk jobs. There are thousands of student newspapers, thousands of cafeterias, and thousands of admissions counselors telling students that their school is special. EMU is not just another school, is it?
EMU is facing a huge number of common college problems: declining attendance and rising prices, increased competition from state schools, and a loss of the traditional donor and student base. We cannot choose our problems, but we can be unique in our solutions. We need to think outside the box financially, academically, and religiously.
Financially, it is time to cut costs. Tuition here is simply too high for school to be affordable. Even with copious scholarships and grants, most of us will be saddled with debt for the foreseeable future. One solution? Reduce overhead drastically.
Last year, Forbes released a study that shows that less than half of tuition paid in private colleges actually goes to professors: the rest is spent in non-academic setting. Stripping down these services is not in itself a solution, but knowing that we could cut cost by half without touching professor’s salaries should raise a few eyebrows.
Secondly, the academic sphere has become completely mundane. With traditional scheduling and programming across the board, our main distinctive academic attraction is the cross-cultural program.
Barring this, experiential learning is reserved for successful upperclassman, even though we love to highlight how the small school experience opens doors for underclassmen.
We seem tied to this idea of classroom based learning when we have the campus and student-faculty ratio to do incredibly exciting projects on a much wider scale. Independent studies could be the norm, not the exception, if we really want to be a unique example of education.
Building on our already somewhat unique cross cultural program, we could create a cross cultural major or minor actually preparing students to “serve and lead in a global context” rather than giving them short tastes of the globe and tying them to suburban America for 7/8ths of their four college years.
Thirdly, we need to rethink one of the few things that does make us unique: our Mennonite heritage. Rather than focusing on raising Mennonite numbers, which would be nice, but likely futile, we should focus on bringing in students who are attracted to the core ideals of Anabaptism — discipleship, service, meaningful and active faith, community, pacifism, global engagement, and stewardship, to name a few — by making radical steps to follow through in all of those areas.
These are not attributes to be ashamed of, and many Mennonite and non-Mennonite students alike find them inspiring and unique — programs like the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding, the Intensive English Program and their undergraduate counterparts already attract numerous students. Why not make them the core of our recruiting strategy instead of putting them on the back burner? Our institution’s Mennonite heritage is an asset, not a liability.
Continuing on our current path will end in financial ruin, both for the institution and for students saddled with enormous debt.
We must find ways to embrace our distinctions, to stay true to being a radical world-centered academic community to be experienced, rather than becoming more and more similar to state institutions that fail to challenge the worldview of their students.
Big changes will be coming one way or another: tuition cannot simply keep rising, and we are already close to a breaking point. Radical changes may be a gamble, but maybe students would actually choose a school like no other rather than just another small university among the hoards.