The Centennial Celebration this past weekend was an incredible success, drawing unprecedented numbers of families and alumni to campus to participate in over 80 events during a three-day period. A lot of time during the celebration was dedicated to remembering and exploring what makes us a unique university, including alumni affinity meetings, a series of TenTalks, and a reflective play performed by Ted & Co.
As a result, campus is awash with feel-good sentiments right now. I indulged in the sentimentality of the weekend as much as anyone, but for me, all of this “looking back” also sharpened what I perceive to be a need for us to look forward. It is the question we have all been thinking about but not talking about: how will EMU stay relevant in the 21st century United States?
Last week, Caleb Schrock-Hurst wrote a column questioning EMU’s distinguishable characteristics, going on to call for us to “think outside of the box” and “embrace our distinctions” in an effort to truly become a university like no other. I disagree with Caleb on a few counts — for instance, I do think our university has traits that distinguish us from the “thousands” of Christian liberal arts colleges, and conveniently ignoring those to make a point is unnecessary— but on the whole, he is absolutely right.
One of these distinguishing traits is our cross-cultural program. Caleb wrote about building on our strong cross-cultural foundation as a way to further prepare our students to “serve and lead in a global context,” and I could not agree more. That could look like anything from a cross-cultural major, as Caleb suggested, to planning new trips that have increasing relevance in a changing world. For example, we could envision a “global metropolis” cross-cultural that focuses on the largest urban areas in the world and the challenges that we face as an urbanizing world; or a “changing climate” cross-cultural, which could be a dynamic and service-oriented trip dedicated to connecting students with the areas of the world most affected by climate change.
Nevertheless, Caleb’s point is well-taken. Despite significant amounts of financial aid, our tuition is still too high. Despite a motto attuned to our differences, we recruit students no differently than any other university.
Despite a robust recycling program, we still create far too much plastic waste, Centennial Weekend operations not excluded. Despite a voiced dedication to sustainability, less than 10 percent of our energy is renewable. Despite our use of the word “radical,” none of this appears to be changing anytime soon. Our inability to extract ourselves both from an incredibly unjust higher education system and from an extractive, resource-intensive consumer culture should be taken as a sign of institutional decadence, and not lightly at that.
This is hard. I understand that. We are facing a lot of tough realities as a school right now, and I earnestly do believe the people making decisions have our best interests in mind. Believe me, I am glad that these types of decisions are not on my plate, because I honestly do not know if I would be able to handle that pressure. And yet, I cannot help but think that there is room for us to be more creative in our solutions to the myriad problems we are facing.
Maybe next year’s Homecoming should be a “think tank” weekend. Can you imagine if all of the people here for the Centennial were thinking not about the past, but about the future? I can see it now: two thousand passionate parents, students, and alumni working together in 80 events over three days to brainstorm creative ideas about how to move forward as a university.
I feel a little like one of the characters from Ted & Co.’s centennial show this past weekend, warning about the descent into the “broad, worldly” path. But I think there is one important difference: instead of asking whether our path forward aligns with the way we have done things in the past, I am calling for a dramatic reorientation that engages the world in a way that is more true to our values and calling.
This is not about taking a step backward. It’s about leaping forward in faith: in faith of a greater plan, in faith that we are called to a radical rather than complacent worldview, and in faith that the next 50 years — the lifetime of my generation — are going to look different than anything we have seen before.
We are at a watershed moment. How will our descendants remember us at our bicentennial celebration? Will we be the brave visionaries for a new model of higher education that truly reflects our desire to “do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God?” Or will we be the passive stewards of education who were not imaginative enough to remain distinctive, leading us ever further into the pitfalls of the inescapable American progress machine?
Let’s be brave, EMU. Now is the time.