Imagine a four-year liberal arts college where:
—students may design their own majors;
—there are no classes on Wednesdays (the four-day week promotes productivity, the faculty has learned);
—students follow a diversified quarter calendar with three ten-week courses in fall and spring, and one-month courses for three months in the winter and three in the summer;
—financial surpluses have been banked for the past four years while more than half of the state’s private colleges have been in the red for each of the past three years.
—Ninety per cent of the operating budget of $1 million a year is raised from tuition, but there are only 400 full-time students who pay $1,400 per year (experts say a college needs at least 1,200 students to stay alive in today’s spiraling cost vortex).
Such a college, one might suppose, must be a radical-chic, secular institution with avant-garde personnel cutting a new swath in the education field.
To be sure, Pacific College in Fresno, California, is avant-garde. And its programs and financial plan are on the leading edge of higher education.
But the school is firmly anchored in tradition, too, and is affiliated with a small, evangelical denomination usually thought of as lukewarm toward—if not in outright opposition to—higher education.
“About half of us Mennonites believe in it.” declared Pacific’s president Dr. Arthur J. Wiebe, during an interview on the twenty-acre campus where twenty-nine faculty members, the majority having Ph.D.s, will face a new crop of students this month.
Only one-third of the student body is Mennonite Brethren, the church that has operated Pacific since it was founded as a Bible institute in 1944. Other students represent thirty some denominations, and about ten per cent of the students are non-Christian.
Still, this unusual school is avowedly in the Anabaptist-Mennonite tradition begun in sixteenth-century Holland under Menno Simons, the man who gave the movement its name. Pacific is one of eight small Mennonite colleges in the United StatesOthers are Tabor in Hillsboro, Kansas, also operated by the Mennonite Brethren Church; Bethel in Newton, Kansas, Bluffton in Ohio, and Freeman Junior College in South Dakota, all associated with the General Conference Mennonite Church; and Hesston (Junior) in Kansas. Goshen in Indiana, and Eastern Mennonite in Harrisonburg, Virginia, (Old) Mennonite Church schools.; it is the newest and most modern.
The unique welding of biblical faith and Christian life-style with the latest concepts in educational theory and student decision-making accounts for the success of Pacific, says its president. Pacific became fully accredited in 1965, five years after Wiebe took over the helm.
Indeed, a report by a blue-ribbon accrediting commission earlier this year said “the ideals of the Mennonite Brethren are alive and well at Pacific.” The centerfold of Pacific’s catalogue spells out “the Pacific College Idea: a Christian college, a prophetic college, a non-sectarian college, an experimental college, an Anabaptist-Mennonite college, a liberal arts college, a community.”
Said the accrediting commission: “Pacific College constitutes a small but vital example of genuine pluralism in American higher education.” Although the college hopes its students will believe in Christ and the ultimate authority of the Bible, it “will not discriminate against students who cannot freely and honestly make such a commitment.”
President Wiebe says that’s where Pacific differs from other evangelical colleges like Biola and Westmont: “A Christian college must be willing to admit at least a limited number of non-Christians in order to be truly Christian. Christian faith is sharing Christ with those who are non-Christian. This keeps us honest.… It’s a tough row to hoe.… The easier choice would be to go the other way.” (Biblical studies and attendance at chapel and convocations are required of all, however.)
How does Pacific stay afloat financially in waters rocking most college craft? Outside of a small subsidy from the denomination (which has 15,000 members in the United States and 15,000 more in Canada) and modest individual gifts, Pacific depends on a carefully thought-out plan involving its in-service program, one of the biggest in the country and already the largest in the field of math in California. Last school year, for example, 4,600 students, including many elementary teachers from around the state, took Pacific’s in-service courses, offered evenings and on Saturdays, mostly off campus. Tuition from this program, which uses material produced by a private corporation headed by Wiebe, keeps Pacific in the black and provides part-time employment for many students.
“We have the freedom to be experimental in the conservative theological tradition,” declares Wiebe. Of his son, who graduated with a self-designed major in cultural history, he says: “He has already read more widely than I did for my doctorate at Stanford.”
Each freshman is required to take a basic course on “what it means to get a college education and be an educated person.” From then on he may follow a pre-planned program or make up his own—with guidance.
This year, for example, some students elected biblical studies while pursuing an inner-city ministry in a Los Angeles ghetto; another group studied Spanish and Mexican culture in Mexico for a month; another spent March at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Meanwhile, a delegation of coeds from Osaka Schoin Women’s College in Japan studied American culture and English at Pacific, staying in a dorm vacated by the students who were in Israel. Pacific coeds remaining in Fresno studied Japanese from Osaka faculty who came with their students. Last summer another Pacific group lived on a Navajo reservation to study Indian culture.
Pacific offers a bachelor’s degree with majors in the core areas of the liberal arts, as well as education courses leading to teaching credentials. The fastest-growing major, spokesmen say, is “Contemporary Christian Ministries,” designed to prepare students for new forms of service on campuses and in the inner city and non-traditional youth, prison, and resort ministries. The Mennonite Brethren’s only seminary, Mennonite Brethren Biblical, with an enrollment of fifty-five, adjoins the Pacific campus.
Besides taking understandable pride in plugging into what he calls the “best educational research in the nation,” Wiebe is pleased that his small, church-related school is taking the lead in another college activity: sports. Pacific’s track team bested cross-town Fresno State College (14,000 students), 83–81 last spring. Pacific boasts four current All-Americans, including the national champion pole-vaulter.
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