Challenges, Opportunities Face Christian Colleges

EMU President Loren E. Swartzendruber speaking EMU President Loren E. Swartzendruber addresses the campus community at the opening convocation of the fall semester.
Photo by Jim Bishop

By Tom Mitchell, Daily News-Record

Loren Swartzendruber quickly points out that schools like Eastern Mennonite University once reflected an academic norm.

“Most colleges started out as Christian colleges,” Swartzendruber told his audience at Wednesday’s Downtown Prayer Luncheon at First Presbyterian Church.

New times and attitudes made higher education’s EMUs an exception, said Swartzendruber, EMU’s president, and a considerably larger secular academic world poses obstacles to spiritually-based colleges.

EMU’s comparatively lower paid faculty, Swartzendruber says, swap higher salaries for a chance to teach in a more religiously free school.

“We are blessed with people committed to the values of EMU,” said Swartzendruber.

Such values include a campus ban on alcohol and drugs and a healthy nudge toward church attendance, though EMU does not enforce the latter practice, Swartzendruber said. Besides Sunday service, EMU offers chapel worship twice a week

EMU, while hardly shedding its old denominational roots, has added new branches. With a charter governed by Mennonite Church USA, EMU’s enrollment of nearly 1,300 students shows more women than men – 61-39 percent respectively – a ratio of Mennonites and non-Mennonites that is virtually 50-50.

A more unbalanced quota, Swartzendruber says, is EMU’s fiscal disadvantage in matching other schools’ operating budget. “We aren’t heavily endowed,” he said, citing EMU’s endowment of $17 million from former graduates and other supporters.

Setting stricter behavior standards for students and staff allows schools like EMU to be more selective. Both parties sign contracts binding them to EMU’s standards of demeanor.

“We can discriminate in hiring,” Swartzendruber said, referring to his school’s employing of persons deemed compatible with EMU’s personal standards. Such philosophies aren’t meant to demean other colleges’ hiring and admission policies, he said. “We’re just different from schools like JMU.”

EMU’s mantra of “nurture and discipline” meets mischief halfway.

“We don’t necessarily expel a student for something that another school might,” Swartzendruber said. “I accept the community’s high standards and expectations, but we’re human.”

Right Fit

EMU students Joel C. Lehman and Erica Kraybill, co-presidents in the university’s student government, took different paths to the Harrisonburg college, but found at EMU an ingredient both felt they might have missed at other institutions: compatibility.

Lehman, a senior from Lancaster, Pa., who is studying communication, found EMU to be something close to a second home.

“Two things drew me to EMU,” Lehman said. “First, the fact that it is a small liberal arts college that’s religious. Secondly, I grew up in a church family and wanted to attend school where I could talk about my faith. ”

Lehman said that EMU’s conservative climate and comparatively low profile don’t faze him. “I knew if I chose to come to EMU, I wouldn’t be challenged as much by other religions. EMU doesn’t have as large a reputation as schools like UVa or places like that, but people are very intrigued and impressed by it. Even though it doesn’t carry the same prestige, it doesn’t mean that the education is not at the same level.”

EMU caught Kraybill, 23, on the rebound. Kraybill, a history major from Columbus, Ohio, transferred in last year after two years at Guilford (N.C.) College. Guilford, Kraybill said, “wasn’t the right fit,” for her.

“I took a year off after I left Guilford and visited EMU but I didn’t expect to end up here,” said Kraybill, whose parents graduated from EMU. “What attracted me to EMU was its really strong academic program. What kept me here, in addition to the academics, was its Christian focus.”

Another draw for Kraybill was EMU’s campus chemistry.

“I really felt people at EMU were connected with each other and had strong sense of common mission in terms of their goals in life, that people here know who they are and what they stand for.”

EMU’s Mennonite foundation welcomes diversity, said Kraybill, who eyed Ohio State but balked at a vision of life at a larger school. “EMU is very spiritually minded and very Christian centered, but it’s not exclusive and its focus is on reaching out to the community and wider world of people in need.”

When they graduate next spring, Lehman and Kraybill may perform public service abroad. Kraybill attributes her interest in such global work to attending college on a campus that encourages such callings.

Said Kraybill: “EMU’s focus on mission comes through.”

Pleasant Valley

Carissa Sweigart, 25, a senior from Hesston, Kan., transferred to EMU last year from Hesston (Kans.) College, a small 2-year liberal arts school, to study elementary education. While knowing Swartzendruber, who served as Hesston’s president before coming to EMU two years ago, eased Sweigart’s transition, EMU’s place in the Shenandoah Valley’s cultural and geographical mix drew her to the Harrisonburg school.

“”I looked into a lot of different public [colleges], including some in my own state,” said Sweigart,. “I like the diversity and the idea of knowing the professors and most of the other students. The area here attracted me, too.” Sweigart added that coming to EMU “gave me a place where I could be part of a community.”

Contact Tom Mitchell at 574-6275 or