West Virginia’s 150th birthday in June offers opportunity to reflect on Bethany’s own history, heritage, and bright future. As the state’s oldest degree-granting institution of higher education—founded in 1840 before West Virginia itself was established—Bethany not only reflects the perilous times of the mid-Nineteenth Century of our birth and the Mountain State’s, but also the complex and amazing era in which we live today.
When Alexander Campbell decided to build a college in the remote wilderness of what was then the northern-most section of Virginia, he was guided by the principles of scholarship, leadership, and devotion to God. As visitors to our website can learn, Mr. Campbell was the leading influence in America’s largest indigenous religious movement, known as the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), churches of Christ, and the Christian Church. He was an innovative educator who believed in childhood, adolescent, and universal female education. And he was a contemporary of many of the notable figures of his time, including Henry Clay, U.S. Presidents James Madison and James Garfield, and Confederate President Jefferson Davis.
Here, along the scenic banks of Buffalo Creek, Mr. Campbell would make his stand for the values closest to his heart, for here would be an institution of opportunity, intellectual freedom, spirituality, reflection, and selfless action. It would be a new college in what was still a very young republic, but Mr. Campbell also watched with grave concern the gathering storm of conflicts that would lead to the Civil War.
As Dr. Duane Cummins points out in his new history of our institution, the war that created West Virginia almost claimed as a casualty the fledgling Bethany College. Twin Union victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg 150 years ago this July, however, foretold preservation of the nation, and of Bethany whose trustees were determined to keep the College’s doors open despite the disastrous consequences of a nation at war with itself.
Today, Mr. Campbell’s vision is flourishing in a different world, but one that still, in many ways, aspires to his values. Bethany College celebrated its 173rd year this past March as the only nationally ranked liberal arts institution in West Virginia—devoted to the classical disciplines of the arts and sciences and committed to the development of the whole person “for a lifetime of work and a life of significance.” On a 1,300-acre campus of 45 buildings amid the natural splendors of the Appalachian mountains, the College enrolls approximately 1,000 students annually from throughout the nation. Adhering to Alexander Campbell’s vision for a life of ongoing education, Bethany College was recently named by U.S. News & World Report as among the top ten institutions in America whose alumni attend graduate school within a year of graduation.
For the past five years, our successes have foretold the future we have charted through our strategic plan: selective enrollment growth, in recent years among the strongest admissions success in our history; strengthening of the College’s financial resources through a campaign that has secured over $45 million to date, including support for an endowment commensurate with our academic quality and reputation; and enhancements to the campus that will not only preserve the beauty and traditions we cherish but also equip us for the demands of advancing technology and new knowledge. This is especially important for our pre-professional offerings in medicine, dentistry, engineering, law, veterinary medicine, and other fields.
We’ve made substantial improvements to the physical assets of Bethany: renovation and reopening of historic Cochran Hall as suite-style housing; an all-weather track and turf, lights, and locker rooms at Bison Stadium; the popular Bethany Beanery coffee shop; expansion of library holdings through the virtual Bowen Central Library system of the Appalachian College Association, relocation of the equestrian program to Oglebay Resort and Conference Center, and much more.
Through a major investment in campus technology, including live web streaming of campus events, Bethany is reaching a truly worldwide audience. And new student audiences are served through dual-degree programs with Carnegie Mellon University, Case Western, Columbia, and Duquesne universities. Our innovative thinking pays off. Bethany’s graduation rate of 64% rates in the top 28%, against a national average of just 40.1%. And our students graduate in fewer years than many of their counterparts at other institutions nationally.
As we develop the next generation of academic programs appropriate to our mission and enrollment goals, recruit top students and talented faculty, and discover new avenues for leadership, Bethany is challenged by shifts in economic, social, and cultural realities. Costs of maintaining an up-to-date campus, providing student-friendly services, and reaching admissions goals rise every year. Social complexity inevitably finds its way to the halls of colleges, along with the cultural implications of students who attain and process information far differently than just a decade ago, who are often the first in their families to attend college, and whose educational backgrounds may prove lacking. Accompanying those trends are the perennial questions of what should be taught, in what format, and how learning outcomes should be measured in an era of expanding online instruction.
So although our natural landscape in and around Bethany would still be familiar to our founder, the educational landscape has altered considerably—requiring a different kind of vision from Mr. Campbell’s, but one that coheres with his founding principles. Accordingly, Bethany College will need to market its educational services even more aggressively, creatively, and meaningfully to the incoming students who may trust our reputation but will expect greater levels of service as they build careers and lives.
I believe our founder would have anticipated nothing less for his living and still-evolving college among the mountains. He and the many successful leaders in our history embraced change, and such is our destiny, too, as A Small College of National Distinction.