‘A Sacred Calling’: President Swartzendruber talks changes, challenges, and leadership at EMU

May 24th, 2016


(Photo by Jon Styer)

After 13 years at Eastern Mennonite University, Dr. Loren E. Swartzendruber retires June 30. An alumnus of both EMU and the seminary, he has left an indelible mark on this nearly 100-year-old institution. His guidance and leadership have resulted in growing enrollment, strong undergraduate and graduate programs, a focused mission and vision, and a fiscally sound foundation that will enable the institution to thrive into the Centennial year and beyond.

As Loren shared in his final University Forum this spring, he considers the privilege of leading EMU and working within this community of faith to be “a sacred calling in the Mennonite-Anabaptist tradition.” In the following article, we celebrate the highlights of his presidency from 2003-2016, and we hear his thoughts on this sacred calling, on leadership and on his future.

Higher education is changing rapidly in our country. What important changes have you seen in higher education during your tenure?

Competition for student enrollment has increased dramatically. Part of that is due to the commonly referenced myth that the liberal arts are dying; in reality, liberal arts graduates are in high demand by employers. Delivery system options – often involving online components – have grown exponentially, requiring significant investment in infrastructure and training. Accreditation agencies are demanding ever-increasing assessment and data on outcomes.

What changes have you seen at EMU during your tenure?

The most obvious change is the total enrollment increase of nearly 30 percent, thanks in part to growing undergraduate enrollment, but also to our unique graduate program offerings at the forefront of leadership development for the common good, restorative justice and peacebuilding. Additionally, we’ve become a more diverse campus in almost every way – religious affiliation, racial ethnic composition of the student body, more non-traditional students. One thing that hasn’t changed: I love our students and their enthusiasm for life, their obvious giftedness in so many facets of life.

What are the main challenges before EMU in the coming years?

Competition for traditional undergraduate students will continue to increase. Attracting a racially diverse faculty and staff that mirrors our student body is top priority. We need to engage alumni and friends from traditions beyond Mennonites to advocate and contribute funds. The changing environment of Mennonite Church USA will require adjustments in how the university relates to its founding denomination.

How do you see your leadership role in a small but highly complex institution?

I’ve often said, somewhat facetiously, that the job of a university president is simple: Gather the resources (financial and human) so that faculty and staff can carry out the mission of the institution – to educate our students to serve and lead in a global context. Hiring the right people is critical, both in the classroom and in leadership roles. I’ve been blessed to be surrounded by gifted leaders. You can’t lead a university by authoritarian decision-making. One leads by encouragement, vision, articulating the mission and by persuasion.

What are some of the most important qualities of a college president?

There aren’t many other roles quite like leading a university. Stamina, emotional intelligence, the ability to hear criticism while not taking all of it too personally, and comfort with being constantly “on the job” are some qualities that come to mind. I was once given this wise advice: “Don’t ever think you are as great as your biggest fans nor as bad as your most vocal critics.” For me, humor is a life-saver. I often say that in order to cry together, we must first laugh together.

During your presidency, you led EMU discussions about and decisions regarding divisive issues within the campus community and beyond. What insight can you share?

I frequently described the experience as whiplash. I engaged in hundreds of conversations, almost all of them with folks who hold their views with deep passion. There were many days when I asked, “Why me?” While I was the point person and took a lot of difficult hits that were hurtful personally, I was surrounded by a great board of trustees and members of the President’s Cabinet who shared the heaviness of the load. The only way to avoid these difficult issues is to withdraw from the culture and/or to be irrelevant. Ultimately, I am driven by a deep love for the church, flawed as it is, and for a passion for justice as I understand what it means to be a follower of Jesus.

A placard on your desk says “Practice the art of the non-anxious presence.” Why is it there?

Rabbi and therapist Edwin Friedman first applied the phrase to family systems conflicts. Leaders are often confronted by conflict. Individuals want us to “fix” it. Expectations are frequently unrealistic. We can respond by “leaving” (no longer being present emotionally) or take on their anxiety. Neither option is helpful. Doesn’t mean the leader isn’t anxious, but it does mean that one chooses not to lead out of fear and anxiety. In our current culture, non-anxious presence is needed more than ever. It confounds me that people of faith would be so driven by fear and anxiety.

You seemed cool and collected in some tough situations. How did you handle stress and pressure?

The notion of non-anxious presence is always on my mind. Being surrounded by gifted colleagues and a loving supportive spouse was very helpful. Always taking my role seriously, but not taking myself too seriously was pretty important. “This too shall pass” is a mantra of mine. No matter how bad it gets, it will get better. Of course, the reverse is also true; no matter how much we might celebrate today, we are never more than a few minutes away from a potential disaster. So, don’t overreact to either extreme. “I can’t change the past” is something I think about a lot. I reflect on my mistakes and try to learn from them, but I don’t dwell on them. Again, I experience a lot of internal feelings that I don’t deny; I just choose not to lead out of those that are negative. Physical exercise is also a key part of maintaining my health, something I make time for regularly, regardless of my full schedule.

What’s next?

Of course, Pat and I look forward to spending time with our family. I’m looking forward to a period of rest and relaxation, and I’ve made no commitments through December 2016. We have moved to a house we purchased on the east side of Harrisonburg. We will not be on campus much during the next year to provide space for my successor. Beyond that we will enjoy occasional music, theater, art, sports events and other special occasions. With respect to future employment, I’ve said I’ll entertain possibilities that are either part-time or interim in nature. I intend to be “choosy” about what I might accept. I’m certainly not looking for a high-stress role! Pat and I have said that perhaps our most important task is to take care of ourselves physically, spiritually, emotionally, etc. so that we can be present to our family and friends.


1 Cross-Cultural Highlight:

Visiting several cross-cultural groups in the middle of their worldwide travels was always special. On one occasion, we joined the EMU group at a Shabbat service on a Good Friday evening in a synagogue in Nazareth, Israel. The students were asked to sing several songs and after the service, an older member wanted to know how long the choir had been on tour. She was shocked when I told her, “This is not a choir. They just enjoy singing together.”

1 Blessing (Among Many):

I can’t even imagine negotiating my career without the love and partnership of Pat over the last 46-plus years. EMU really did get “two for one” because of her own experience as a professional in leadership roles. It wasn’t always easy for her: Who wants to hear their spouse tell the same stories in multiple settings over and over? The love and support of our children, their spouses, and our grandchildren has been immensely life-giving. I am incredibly blessed!

2 Proud Moments:

Not many college presidents get to enjoy the once-in-a-lifetime experience of representing their university at the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony in Oslo, Norway. I was there in honor of Leymah Gbowee, alumna of EMU’s Center for Justice and Peacebuilding.

At a reception in Georgetown, I was introduced to Vice President Joe Biden by Mark Shriver of the Kennedy family, who was our Commencement speaker that year. Mr. Biden immediately said, “Oh, I know the Mennonites quite well. They do good work.”

4 Disappointments:

In terms of capital projects, I wish we could have improved our music facility, and I would love to have provided a new home for our world-renowned Center for Justice and Peacebuilding. The Suter Science project has been satisfying, particularly because the building was new in my first year of college 48 years ago, but we had to scale back the scope because of the recession. And I’m always conscious of the need to provide better compensation for faculty and staff.

+ 1 Books That Have Provided Guidance or Inspiration:

I’ve read so many books that it’s hard to name the most important or influential. The Recovery of the Anabaptist Vision by Guy Hershberger played a pivotal role at a crossroads in my life vocationally in 1972. I’ve also benefited from the wisdom of Leading People from the Middle by Dr. Bill Robinson, From Alfalfa to Ivy by Dr. Joseph Martin ’59, Benefit of the Doubt: Breaking the Idolatry of Certainty by Dr. Greg Boyd, and Dr. Daniel Goleman’s books on emotional intelligence. The Bible is always a source of inspiration and guidance.

1 A Host Of Role Models (But ONE In Particular):

Leading for the common good is central to how I understand my calling and practices. Additionally, a number of leaders over the course of my career have mentored me in particular ways. As an Anabaptist Mennonite, I’m profoundly influenced by Jesus’ model of servant-leadership.