In lectures, Sprunger looks at writing a college history for the 21st century
by Melanie Zuercher
NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – A major facet of Bethel College’s celebration of its 125 years has been welcoming publication of a new book-length history of the college.
Keith L. Sprunger, Oswald H. Wedel Professor Emeritus of History and author of Bethel College of Kansas, 1887-2012, also gave the 2012 Menno Simons Lectures at Bethel, Oct. 28-30.
Since the last substantial history of the college dates from 1954, Sprunger spent a good deal of his time in the lectures looking at aspects of Bethel history that wouldn’t or couldn’t have been covered in P.J. Wedel’s The Story of Bethel College.
By tradition, the second of the four-lecture series occurs during Monday convocation, making it the one with by far the largest audience of current students.
For his second lecture, Sprunger chose to treat “student voices,” heard through postcards and underground newspapers and, to a lesser extent, yearbooks and T-shirts.
“I wanted to discover what students were doing and thinking when they weren’t in the classroom,” he said.
Sprunger is a committed collector of Bethel postcards. “A hundred years ago, students made lots of use of postcards to communicate and express opinions,” he said. “‘Kodaking’ was the rage [in the first part of the 20th century] – photos could easily be made into postcards by having them printed them on special paper with the postcard format on the back.”
Photo postcards showed things like student dress and campus buildings from the time, while the messages “give a grassroots view of ordinary history,” Sprunger said.
As for newspapers, Sprunger said, “I found a great deal of valuable material in The Collegian, but there are always faculty sponsors keeping an eye on the student newspaper. So if you wanted to express opinions on the edge, you had to do an underground newspaper that was often slipped under doors.”
There hasn’t been an underground paper at Bethel since 2003’s Bethel Collision – “on a collision course with authority” – Sprunger said. Today, student opinion is most likely to appear via Facebook or Twitter.
Although Bethel has “a long tradition of student nonconformity, going back into the ’40s,” Sprunger said, perhaps the most vocal – and negative – underground voice was The Fly, published irregularly between 1968-70.” Its often angry tone reflected the radical changes that occurred on campus in what Sprunger called, in his third lecture, “the crucial decade” of the 1960s.
“The decade started for Bethel rather quietly and conventionally,” Sprunger said, with an outside consultant doing a study in preparation for a fund drive. He saw a conventional curriculum; a mostly Mennonite, mostly Bethel graduate faculty; “wholesome, constructive and Christian” student life – an average Midwestern liberal arts college.
Sprunger noted, “The consultant wrote: ‘I covet a little greater measure of excitement.’ Good news – the ’60s [were] on the way.”
In Sprunger’s assessment, 1967 was “the time when Bethel seemed to have reached a turning point, not only because of national events [e.g., the Civil Rights Movement, the Vietnam War and student activism nationally] but because of Peace Club activities and the growth of more extreme or radical ideas coming to campus and being accepted by students.”
Orville Voth, Bethel president from 1967-71, endured vandalism of his property, threats of violence against him and his family, threatening phone calls and explosives thrown against his door, most or all of this perpetrated by students.
“The Fly represented the pinnacle of student dissent,” Sprunger said. “It had a sharp message: that students must oppose fascism at the national level, illustrated by President Nixon, and at the campus level, represented by President Voth. He was hardworking and had a deep love of Bethel but students did not take to him easily. They considered his crew-cut hairstyle unforgivable.
“By the end of the decade, Bethel was considerably changed. President Voth resigned. Curriculum changes piled up. No longer a sheltered Kansas Mennonite enclave, Bethel had gone modern and joined the academic and social revolutions.”
The consequences, however, were more serious than many knew at the time. Demonstrations on campus (this was the era of Bethel’s “15 minutes of fame” when the non-stop bell-ringing for deaths in Vietnam made Life magazine) and student radicalism in general strained relationships with the Newton community and Bethel's Mennonite constituency.
Former Bethel President D.C. Wedel, who had come back to work in the development office, “warned of a dire situation with the relationship with Western District Conference, about half of whose member churches had dropped or reduced support of Bethel over anti-war protests and activities,” Sprunger said.
It had been so bad, in fact, that Sprunger discovered, in his research for the book, the existence of a secret “Committee to Close the College.”
In 1970, Western District Conference called a special meeting at Bethel at which, despite everything, church representatives voted to assume Bethel’s debt and give the college another chance. The next chapter would be the 20-year presidency of Harold Schultz, 1971-91, and what some would call “a Bethel renaissance,” Sprunger said.
“That 1970 meeting was crucial. I had gone into it thinking I would need to look for a new position. After that, I felt there was a future for Bethel.”
The final lecture was actually a panel discussion involving Sprunger, John Sharp, author of Hesston College’s centennial history (2009) and Richard Kyle, one of four authors of the Tabor College centennial history (2008).
As historians, Sprunger, Sharp and Kyle noted they all faced the challenge of trying to write scholarly history while also promoting their institutions and institutional values and distinctives.
“I wanted it to be a good history, one I wouldn’t be ashamed to show my history colleagues,” Sprunger said, “not just a promotional work but also a scholarly work – [as well as] a celebration of 125 years,” while Sharp added the goal of giving “the people of the past a voice – discern what might they say, or want to say, to us [today].”
In trying to recount each college's history, warts and all, while also making it look good, asked Perry White, Bethel president and discussion moderator, what issues or events stood out?
“I started with this idea: In telling the history of Bethel College, I would assume that [almost] everyone did the best they could for Bethel,” Sprunger said. “Even if I saw difficulties or flaws, not to leave it only at that.”
For each author, the particular stories that made it harder to do that all involved presidential tenures or behavior. However, all three agreed that, unlike past histories of their respective institutions, these modern ones needed to be open about some of the more painful pieces of history, though Sprunger acknowledged the difficulty of dealing with very recent ones, in particular, “the transition” of President Barry Bartel in 2009 after only three years in office.
Though the three colleges are situated similarly geographically (in south-central Kansas, within a 20-mile radius) and were all started by people with a common Anabaptist heritage from the 16th century, the panel brought out significant differences as well.
Several times, Kyle noted the influence of evangelical Christian fundamentalism on Tabor College, resulting in a certain anti-intellectual bent. Though Tabor’s constituency says it wants “a Christian liberal arts college,” Kyle said, there’s also a feeling, not explicitly stated, that that same constituency desires Tabor to be “a Bible college.”
Bethel College, established first of the three and very much on the geographical frontier for its founding denomination of Mennonites, has always seen itself as an intellectual “light in the West.” Hesston, begun in the same area, was deliberately placed in this “out-of-the way location,” Sharp said, “to allow students, who came from sheltered environments, to study safely and not be greatly affected by ‘the world.’”
The three authors acknowledged significantly changing demographics for both students and faculty at the three colleges and the subsequent challenge of maintaining a distinctively Anabaptist identity, along with questions that the dominance of electronic communication will likely raise for the authors of future institutional histories.
Those histories, Sprunger said, could very well be e-books.
Next year’s Menno Simons lecturer will be Marlene Epp, associate professor of peace and conflict studies at Conrad Grebel University College in Waterloo, Ontario. Her primary areas of teaching and research are Mennonite history, gender studies, the history of immigration and ethnicity in Canada, and the history of peace.
Bethel College is the only private college in Kansas listed in the 2012-13 Forbes.com analysis of premier colleges and universities in the United States and ranks in the top five “Best Baccalaureate Colleges” in the Washington Monthly annual college guide for 2012-13. The four-year liberal arts college is affiliated with Mennonite Church USA. For more information, see www.bethelks.edu.