Those who come to Bethel College face a multitude of differing campus influences. Bethel is a campus that was started by traditional Mennonites and is influenced by many of those same roots today.
On the other hand, however, is Bethel’s primary identifier as a Liberal Arts college, which requires the provision of a wide variety of general ideas. It comes down to a question of Bethel’s identity, a question that wonders how exactly these ideas relate and interact, and what change Bethel has experienced throughout the years and what it goes to face.
According to Dale Schrag, director of church relations, “Bethel, as a Mennonite college, is absolutely a consideration.”
Schrag explained when he was a student, Bethel was a Mennonite college, but when he returned to work here, that distinction was totally gone.
Keith Sprunger, author of “Bethel College of Kansas,” agreed with Schrag and said, “The Mennonite monopoly has diminished.” Supporting Sprunger’s suggestion is the fact most students today are not Mennonite, even though names such as Voth and Unruh seem to be everywhere.
Sprunger describes Bethel in three ways: as a Mennonite college, a Kansas college, and a Liberal Arts college. The first is seen in Bethel’s roots and its church base, and the second is pretty obvious. But what exactly does it mean to be a college for the Liberal Arts?
For Sprunger, liberality at Bethel means openness.
“The idea of openness has been fairly consistent at Bethel,” he said.
Sprunger said, “The idea of openness has changed with society.” But look around; the campus is a far different place than it was 120 years ago. Our teachers aren’t in suits and our student base is far more open and varied.
Schrag and Sprunger agree the biggest change on the Bethel campus is in the faculty and students. Sprunger believes this particular change is a positive one.
“From the standpoint of educational theory, diversity is good,” he said.
This viewpoint is further emphasized by Rachel Pannabecker, director of Kauffman Museum. She said she believes the most obvious change comes from the “greater diversity of students from beyond south central Kansas, from urban areas, from racial-ethnic backgrounds other than white European American.”
The main population of strictly white students is changing, and now we are seeing for the first time a significant portion of non-white and non-Kansan students who also call Bethel home.
Another change, according to Sprunger, is from where our financing comes. There was a point in time where all of Bethel’s funding came directly from the local community. Now, students rely a lot on federal funding.
John Thiesen, co-director of libraries, calls the economic change one of the “more affecting of the campus changes.” Most students can find common ground with each other; that isn’t the issue. According to Thiesen, “the decline in small town midwest constituency” is the biggest factor. As we look to the nation and the world, we tend to lose sight of the folk origins of the community, especially with an eye to economic change and backgrounds.
“(There is) always a struggle with what is old and what is new,” Schrag said.
Sprunger, Schrag and Thiesen all agree this change is not bad, and Bethel is headed in the right direction. The worry for Schrag is we aren’t changing fast enough.
“We’re almost too enamored of our traditions so that it gets in the way of how effectively we support and affirm our current students,” Schrag said.
Bethel can be identified by its provision of Liberal Arts, by its Mennonite roots and by its traditional economics, but also by its diverse student base, its multitudinous ideologies and even by its government funding.
Bethel’s future is unclear, but students, faculty and community alike can look back on the changes of the past and to Bethel’s many-layered identity and take heart. There is always opportunity for more change, but in the end it comes back to Bethel to define itself.