‘We must engage the community with authenticity and tenacity’

The following are edited remarks from Buena Vista University President Joshua Merchant’s inaugural address on May 5.

Today is a proud day for Buena Vista University as we reflect on our past and anticipate our future. In the 127 years since the founding of Buena Vista College by the Presbyterian Church, our institution has advanced despite many challenges. The present moment of transition arrives at a time of uncertainty for private rural colleges and universities. We are living in a world that will test our university. We must remain rooted in our principles and focused on our founding mission. We must be mindful and accept our strengths. And yes, we must also accept our weaknesses. We must, we absolutely must, be ambitious in fulfilling our promise.

BVU may sit quietly along the pristine shores of Storm Lake; but we are not an institution of arrogance. Nor, are we an institution of exclusivity. From the outset, we have proclaimed that we would be an institution dedicated to teaching, education, and service. The values set forth by our Founding Fathers endure. Our values may be the same, but the world is different. Considering the myriad of challenges facing institutions like us, we must be open to being bold, taking risks, and challenging our norms. My good colleague and friend, Dr. Brian Lenzmeier, stated it well, “We must become comfortable with being uncomfortable.”

Today we honor Buena Vista University’s founding men and women. They were cultural and academic entrepreneurs who pressed forward with a vision. Dr. William H. Cumberland wrote, “The history of Buena Vista College reveals a determined effort to survive in spite of harsh economic times, wars, and often a churchly indifference to its success and growth.” Despite our perseverance, despite our success, we cannot be complacent.   

For centuries, critics have predicted the extinction of college and universities grounded in the liberal arts. To think that institutions such as BVU cannot adapt and cannot flourish is absurd. However, we cannot ignore the external threats. They are real.

Buena Vista University can be a case study of flexibility and strength; key components of the resiliency needed to meet the demands of a twenty-first century university. However, we can be better. We should be better. We must be better. If Buena Vista University is to navigate and illuminate its way through this turbulent world, our purpose and relevance must be even more profound. If we are to persevere, if we are to flourish, we must be clear, and we must be confident. 

We must take risks and implement a bold vision — A vision that reaffirms our University’s worth and dynamic ability to embrace change and impact lives.

• I suggest that we reimagine and reaffirm our distinctive and defining qualities.

• I suggest that we reposition Buena Vista University to be a recognized destination of higher education of intensity and innovation.

• I suggest we amplify our investment in our faculty and encourage students to push academic boundaries.

• I suggest we reclaim our worth — our worth as a known commodity with profound outcomes.  

I OFFER THREE affirmations intrinsic to BVU needing to be reimagined for a new era of prosperity.

FIRST, we must affirm our willingness to expand accessibility, increase diversity, and enhance student success.

As a first-generation college student, I know the transformational power of higher education. BVU will increase our commitment to offering a stellar educational experience to students who are first in the family to attend college. We fulfill this pledge by strengthening our commitment to increasing access to education and serving historically underserved student populations. We live in an increasingly diverse world and it is important that we reflect diversity in both appearance and culture. We are renewing our commitment to advancing access and strengthening diversity. 

Our newly-established Education for Service Scholars program is one way we will provide an opportunity to students who demonstrate financial need and are first in the family to attend college. More than 30 students from BV County applied to the program, and two weeks ago we welcomed our first cohort of scholars who will begin this fall. This is just the beginning.

BVU must have an appreciation for the various communities we aspire to recruit, and it is important we understand our ability to authentically connect within those diverse communities. As demographics continue to change–specifically here in Iowa–it is imperative we augment our enrollment strategies. We must intentionally focus our work to attract and retain diverse students at a considerably higher rate. We will expand our recruitment efforts to include a bilingual member of the admissions team; We will print admissions material in Spanish; We will partner with community organizations serving diverse populations; And, we will increase assistance to those families with financial need. This…this is just the beginning.

SECOND, we must affirm our willingness to strengthen and invest in our academic enterprise to meet the needs of a changing economy.

Buena Vista University is unapologetically committed to the ideals of academic excellence. We pride ourselves on hiring the best faculty–ones who are teachers, scholars, creators, researchers, challengers, and questioners. Our students are admitted selectively, and our graduates are prepared to immediately impact their life’s work. BVU’s commitment to academic excellence endorses some of the finest scholarship, research, teaching, and creative activity in all the world. But…is this enough?

We do not, and we will not, compromise our standards. However, the concept of academic excellence itself has evolved. The commodification of higher education has forced colleges and universities to rethink their academic offerings. A prescribed academic curriculum has long been considered essential to building a robust academic community. Prescription, however, risks stagnation. It tends to inhibit the appreciation of innovation and discovery.

A renaissance in thinking-such as this-will take time. It will deserve an appropriate attention to process and procedure. But, can we afford to wait? I would advocate for a balanced approach, which I believe we have found. BVU will soon be launching new academic programs to meet the needs of the community we serve. 

Just last week, we announced a new interdisciplinary academic institute: The Institute for Agriculture, Food, and Resource Management. The Institute will be built to meet the demands of a flourishing agricultural sector in NW Iowa and beyond. New academic majors will be launched in Agricultural Business and Agricultural Science with future discussions focusing on majors in Food Systems, Agricultural Innovation, Natural Resources, Sustainability, and Energy Management. The initial response has exceeded my expectations and gives me great hope for the future. 

In collaboration with the Harold Walter Siebens School of Business faculty, exploration will shortly commence to completely rethink our entrepreneurial studies offerings. It is my goal to be even more relevant to our region and I will work with faculty to re-focus our current entrepreneurial studies programs and create a Center for Rural Entrepreneurship. The Center will prepare students for life…a life of community leadership. The Center will equip students with the necessary skills to build a prosperous future of supporting and empowering social, civic and economic growth needed in rural America. 

AND THIRD, we must engage the community with authenticity and tenacity.

Andrew Delbanco, a professor of American Studies at Columbia University, feels strongly that private institutions need to do a better job of meeting their public responsibilities. He stated, “I think there is a sense that private institutions serve their own students well, that they serve mainly students from affluent families, although that can be an unfair charge. But I feel the strongest should be doing a better job at understanding their community as larger than their students, alumni, and donors.” This we do at BVU.

Community engagement has emerged as an unofficial movement in higher education, with terms such as “the engaged campus,” “civic engagement,” and “the public good.” Our motto–Education for Service–is more than just a description of what we do. It is who we are. Buena Vista University lives its mission each and every day. We do this through our curricular and co-curricular programming, which are often in partnership with one another.

BVU is one of more than 450 institutions nationwide that has committed to implementing a Civic Action Plan as part of our ongoing commitment to encourage and enhance community engagement. And BVU is the first Civic Action Plan to be launched by any college or university in Iowa.

Community engagement matters. It matters to Buena Vista University and it matters to Storm Lake. As I have said numerous times, a stronger BVU is a stronger Storm Lake, and a stronger Storm Lake is a stronger BVU. Together we are better.

These commitments—to promote Buena Vista University’s openness, to engage in public service, and to build productive partnerships with our neighbors—will ensure that BVU continues to flourish in a way that is consistent with the high purpose of our founding.

We will encounter frustrations on our path - moments of disequilibrium. These moments are gifts. These moments are opportunities. These moments afford the change that is learning and that is greatly needed. I accept your charge with deep gladness and humbleness, and I will serve you with my whole heart and being.