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Though he has spent almost a decade in higher-education administration, Dr. Jonathan C. Gering, Bethel College’s 15th president, also has a foundation in the sciences, the liberal arts and community engagement.
Gering was raised on a dryland wheat farm in eastern Washington near the small town of Ritzville. “Growing up on a farm taught me about seasonality and timing, the value of ‘character-building’ work, and the importance of community,” Gering said. “I was also close to the land and living organisms, which fostered an interest in biology.”
The son of two Bethel alumni, Gering also pursued his undergraduate degree at Bethel. He graduated cum laude in 1994 with a B.A. in biology, after completing a senior thesis on “Status of amphibian populations in Harvey County, Kansas,” with research mentor Dwight Platt, professor (now emeritus) of biology. The research was a formative experience for Gering. “Research is how students learn about expertise and mastery in their disciplines, about what it means to be a professional, about the historical arcs of their discipline,” he said. “Research teaches character – how to cope with failure and success, how to deal with criticism, what it means to have intellectual ownership. Ethics matter in research as they do in life.”
Gering earned his graduate degrees from Miami University, Oxford, Ohio. On paper, his masters and doctoral degrees are in zoology because that was the name of the department at the time, but in content, both degrees are in ecology. Gering’s dissertation research on the arboreal (tree-dwelling) beetle communities in deciduous forests of Ohio and Indiana examined what aspects of the environment most strongly influenced the number of beetle species in the tree crowns.
Immediately upon graduating from Miami, in 2001, Gering took a visiting assistant professor position in the biology department at Truman State University in Kirksville, Mo. The Truman website describes the institution as “Missouri’s only highly selective public liberal arts and sciences university.” Truman’s undergraduate student body numbers at a little over 6,000, with approximately 200 graduate students. Truman provides “a liberal arts and sciences education,” meaning all students complete a core curriculum – “engaging in a broad scope of inquiry” – called the Liberal Studies Program.
Bethel’s Common Ground curriculum and Truman’s Liberal Studies Program are variations on the same theme – preparing students to live and learn in a complex world – Gering said. “The term ‘liberal’ has been politicized,” he noted. “That has led to a misunderstanding about what is actually taking place during the student’s education. “In an educational context, liberal means ‘free.’ And historically it meant that the recipient was not tied to one occupation. To complete a liberal education is to be ‘careers-ready.’” Gering continued, “By choice and intent, I have immersed myself in the culture of three exceptional liberal arts schools, one private – Bethel – and two public – Miami and Truman.”
Gering earned tenure in 2006, when he was promoted to associate professor of biology as well as being named department chair, a position in which he served 2006-07 and 2008-09. In 2009, Truman created its School of Science and Mathematics, naming Gering as founding dean, a position he held through the end of the 2015-16 school year, after which he applied for and was granted a year-long sabbatical.
The School of Science and Mathematics is comprised of seven departments: agriculture, biology, chemistry, computer science, mathematics, physics and statistics. In his seven years as the school’s founding dean, Gering was responsible for around 100 full-time faculty members plus adjunct faculty and support staff. During his administrative tenure (biology chair as well as founding dean), Gering facilitated the creation of a new academic program (a Statistics department and major) and curricular enhancements such as hybrid and online courses that have proven their attraction to prospective students; collaborated with Truman’s Office of Advancement to oversee completion of the Del and Norma Robison Planetarium and Multimedia Theater; and navigated the annual budgeting process during a period of fiscal readjustment in the institution.
For his entire tenure as founding dean of the School of Science and Mathematics, Gering was faced with the difficulties of substantial budget shortfalls stemming from legislative decisions, the 2008 financial crisis and recovery from it, enrollment challenges and increases in fixed costs. In 2011, Gering was a member of a cabinet-level FY 2012 Budget Task Force charged with preparing the university for “the worst financial scenarios.” And he successfully kept the School of Science and Mathematics on course through a substantial decrease in staffing and operations budgets over the seven years.
Despite the fiscal challenges, Gering identified several successes, including identifying a culture for the new academic unit. “We were united by the explanatory power of the STEM disciplines, a predisposition for data and the pursuit of excellence in high-impact educational practices,” he said. Gering and his colleagues partnered with Truman’s School of Health Sciences and Education to expand STEM education opportunities after successfully writing a grant to the National Science Foundation to increase the number of well-prepared K-12 science and math teachers.
Gering also had opportunities to engage with the local community of Kirksville (population 17,000). He worked with the Chamber of Commerce, K-12 leaders and business representatives to secure funding for the Kirksville STEAM Alliance (STEAM is Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics), the main focus of which is workforce development for the local community. Gering was also Truman’s representative on the STEM advisory committee for the Girl Scouts of Eastern Missouri, where he worked with business partners to increase STEM learning opportunities for Girl Scouts.
“My past successes give me reason to believe that I can provide transformational leadership for Bethel College,” Gering said. “That process starts with creative thought about what might be possible, given the culture, capacity and resources of the institution.”