Interview with EMU President Loren Swartzendruber

Recent initiatives from the board and administration regarding EMU’s hiring policy are reflexive of a larger shift in church and national politics. Loren Swartzendruber details the various influences and intentions of the upcoming listening process, which will review the hiring of gay and lesbian faculty and staff.

The president’s cabinet met yesterday to start outlining this process. A structure will be decided upon by early January, with variables that will unfold throughout the spring 2014 semester. This process will involve ways to gather feedback from internal and external stakeholders, including the methods of individual interviews, surveys, and group processes. Group processes will be targeted towards those with connections to the university, such as students, faculty, staff, alumni, church leaders, and donors.

The board of trustees has recently rescinded a 2002 decision to counteract public criticism of the Mennonite confession of faith, which was made before Swartzendruber’s assumption of the EMU presidency in 2003.

“Every board and administration needs to make decisions in light of its current realities and contexts,” Swartzendruber said, noting that a change in policy does not mean that a former principle was inappropriate at the time. In regards to this change, he commented, “I do think it’s important for faculty to have the freedom to voice their opinions,” and the 2002 resolution was removed so that faculty would have no fear in doing so.

“We have to have the freedom to discuss them [pertinent issues] without employment being at jeopardy,” Swartzendruber said, explaining that “to serve our students we need to have the freedom to debate issues the church is struggling with.”

The hiring policy is the responsibility of the board to approve, as are other administrative policies. Many members of the board of trustees are appointed by the Mennonite Education Agency. Their mission statement is “to strengthen the life, witness, and identity of Mennonite Church USA through education.” MEA has a relationship with the five Mennonite colleges and two seminaries in the U.S. Swartzendruber would characterize Mennonite USA’s involvement with EMU “as a consultative relationship.”

Juxtaposed to that relationship is the importance of academic freedom in an educational institution. Many faculties are both involved in the church and must be able to speak to their own differences with church tenets. “They are church leaders, lay leaders. . . in some ways they wear two hats,” Swartzendruber said.

The question about LGBTQ inclusion and leadership has had a long-term presence in the church and politics, but Swartzendruber stated that, “the cultural milieu has certainly changed in the last decade.” He cited the example of gay marriage legalization: ten years ago, no states had approved it, whereas now there are 16. He also noted that general policy reviews are status quo for the university. “Any organization has to constantly be reviewing its policies.”

The university has allowed faculty variance with other parts of the Mennonite confession of faith, which Swartzendruber states is not a “creedal” document on which hiring policy has been based. For instance, article 19 describes marriage as between a man and a woman for life, but divorced and remarried faculty have been hired. A strict constructionist, Swartzendruber explained, should find fault with that practice as well. “I think we should have crossed that line [of hiring divorced and remarried faculty]. . . we haven’t taken a literalist interpretation of that phrase.” Another example is the Mennonite commitment to pacifism, “but we have not made that a condition of employment;” not all faculty are pacifists. Mennonites are practitioners of adult baptism, but that also is not a condition for employment. “I get nervous when we hold up any single issue as a litmus test,” Swartzendruber explained. Biblical literalism, he said, is intellectually dishonest, and Swartzendruber is happy to give examples if need be. “We all interpret the Bible.”

There are strong perspectives on either end of the spectrum, and many in the middle of unformed opinion or ambiguous inclination. “I would say there is no way we’re going to get consensus,” Swartzendruber said. “I hope that we can engage each other with civility and without denigrating each other’s faith.” He suspects that those of opposing views are all bringing their thoughts to him, but not to each other. “I worry that people too often talk primarily with people who share their same view.” While this is human nature, by remaining in that pattern, “we’ll never have meaningful dialogue.”

The expected outcome of the listening process remains uncertain; its intention is respectful dialogue in response to paradigm shifts relevant to university function.

Five of the 19 trustees and six associate trustees on the board who will be reviewing the hiring policy through a listening process beginning in January. Andrew Dula not pictured.

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Myron Blosser

Kay Nussbaum

Kay Nussbaum

Clyde Kratz

Clyde Kratz

Herman Bontrager

Herman Bontrager

 

 

 

-Randi B. Hagi, Co-Editor in Chief


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