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Bethel board chair defends decision to remove president

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by Paul Schrag, editor of Mennonite Weekly Review

NORTH NEWTON, Kan. — The chair of the Bethel College board of directors on Sept. 25 defended the termination of the president as necessary for the institution’s health.

Melvin Goering of Santa Fe, N.M., spoke to about 175 people at the annual meeting of the Bethel College Corporation in the Schultz Student Center.

Goering said the removal of President Barry C. Bartel on Aug. 15 was “absolutely the only decision the board could have made and still keep its responsibility as a board.”

He said the decision to end Bartel’s presidency three years into a five-year contract came after a review showed the Bethel community lacked confidence in Bartel’s leadership.

“When a community speaks and says this is no longer a leader we want to follow, it leaves the board no choice,” Goering said. “You no longer can have a successful institution with that leadership.”

The review, conducted this summer, surveyed all faculty and staff, student leaders, alumni council and board members. The findings gave Bartel high marks in some areas, Goering said, but also confirmed “a significant number of troubling signs.”

The board shared the results of the review with Bartel on July 27. Goering said Bartel disputed the accuracy of the findings and denied the integrity of the process. This led the board to conclude a presidential change was necessary.

Goering said the board had hoped Bartel would agree and offer to resign. When he did not, the board decided to terminate him.

Goering apologized “that we did not communicate as well as we should have” to the public. He said the board grieved the decision, knowing it was hurtful to Bartel and shocking to college supporters. He said he was describing the process in more detail now to dispel rumors.

He said he was encouraged that responses to the board’s decision showed great depth of support for Bethel.

Goering and interim president John Sheriff both spoke of financial and enrollment challenges. Enrollment is down by more than 100 students over a two-year period, to 435 this fall. This year’s budget deficit could be as high as $900,000, even after $750,000 of cuts were made last year.

Goering and Sheriff both said there is much optimism and positive feeling on campus this fall. Goering said there was new vitality and energy. Sheriff said the campus community was rising to meet challenges with confidence.

Goering gave an opportunity for response, but there were no questions or comments.

Brenda Glanzer Lilliston, moderator of Western District Conference of Mennonite Church USA, read a statement of support for Bethel from the conference’s executive committee.

In a phone interview Sept. 26, Bartel said that when the board presented the review’s results to him, he recognized the validity of some concerns and stated his commitment to work to improve.

“I said I was interested in strengthening my presidency in response to the criticism and had already begun to do so in specific ways,” he said.

Bartel and his wife, Brenda, are living at Council Grove. Their children, Jordan and Leah, are students at Bethel.

“I’m taking time to reflect and consider options for the future,” he said.

This article is reprinted with permission from the Oct. 5, 2009, edition of Mennonite Weekly Review and can currently be seen on the MWR Web site, www.mennoweekly.org.

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