Six Lessons from EMU’s History in Facilities and Fundraising

March 8th, 2016

1. Believe in miracles but work for them.

In its 90 years of constant struggle with limited resources to provide a Mennonite version of education “an alternative to secular and other Christian institutions” EMU has been saved several times by seemingly inexplicable interventions.

An unexpected gift arrives at the last minute, students rally, faculty and staff members sacrifice their already small salaries, supporters step up, and the entire community pulls together in the style of an Amish barn-raising and EMU surmounts its latest obstacle, again.

EMU has hewed faithfully to its mission, though it has not been easy: neither our faith nor our experience promise “easy” achievement. This is a place where people lift up a prayer, then roll up their sleeves and work.

2. A handful of determined, faithful persons can make a huge impact.

The men and women who believed Mennonites needed an education that reflected their beliefs and values were in the minority in the first quarter of the 20 th century. Much travel, countless meetings to work through much disagreement, and lots of prayer preceded the foundation of Eastern Mennonite School in 1917.

Through its nine decades, EMU has been viable only because it was staffed by devoted, often-brilliant (though they wouldn’t have considered themselves so), people who gave up better pay and worldly accolades to work together on a mission in which they passionately believed.

Additional support came from dozens of other believers who wrote checks (even during the Depression) so buildings could be built, bills paid, and tuition assistance offered.

3. Educational institutions cannot survive on tuition income. Without generous donors, EMU would have no facilities and grounds. This was true in 1917, 1926, 1938, 1943, 1957, 1968, 1971, 1986, and 1999, and it remains true now.

In the 03/27/98 issue of the Chronicle of Education, William College economics professor Gordon Winston wrote a still-relevant analysis of the difference between businesses and institutions of higher education. “The most important [difference] is that every student ‘every customer ‘ is subsidized by his college. His tuition doesn’t even come close to paying the full cost of producing his education.”

Using 1990s-era statistics, Winston said, a college that charges $4,000 in tuition is actually offering a $12,000 education, giving each student a subsidy of $8,000 a year.

“Colleges and universities sell education at a price substantially less than the cost of production. What’s left over has to be covered by something else by government appropriations or by gifts or by earnings from the college’s wealth.”

A student who pays full tuition at EMU – most do not – today only covers 85 percent of the cost of his or her undergraduate studies, and none of the cost of capital improvements or new initiatives.

4. Changes in facilities and grounds will almost always be resisted by some folks while welcomed by others.

EMU’s Hartzler Library houses an historical library and archives with files containing letters and publications showing a fascinating array of opinions at every stage of building on campus.

What’s an eyesore to some is an historical structure worth preserving to others. What’s a sensible investment to some is a waste of precious resources to others.

History shows that resistors to a new building Eldon Kurtz to the Campus Center, for example, or Hubert Pellman to the north annex of the original Administration Building often come to appreciate it. Once opinions are considered and a decision has been made, the community as a whole tends to pull together and move on.

5. Time brings changes, and these changes eventually get reflected in our facilities.

Buildings deteriorate. The archway adored by one generation will likely be replaced by something else adored in a future generation. And that generation will see the same happen.

Subjects rise and fall Spanish lessons supplant Pennsylvania Dutch lessons. Recreation shifts from shuffleboard to soccer. Communication shifts from print to the Internet.

Pushed by the up-and-coming generation, EMU will generally be ahead of its older alumni in adjusting the course it has plotted to meet the needs of the latest generation. Yet it will tend to lag behind the demands of the most visionary in its ranks, such as the student who predicted in 1938 in the days when EMS forbade radios and musical instruments that EMS would have its own radio station one day (which happened in 1954).

6. One thing has not changed. EMU’s mission remains largely the same as it was when it was founded 90 years ago.

As President Loren Swartzendruber has said recently: “It may seem strange for a university president to say that he doesn’t really care if his institution exists 20 years from now. And I don’t, not for the sake of the university itself. But I do care, with all my heart and soul, that the church’s witness is strong in the year 2027. I’m convinced it will only be so if a substantial number of our youth receive a Mennonite education.”

One can sense the first president of Eastern Mennonite, J.B. Smith, nodding in agreement from where his soul rests, perhaps happily listening to his daughter play hymns on the now-permitted piano.

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