Bethany's Overflowing Time Capsule
As I write, many Bethany seniors are preparing for and taking “Senior Comps,” one of the time-honored traditions that link Bethanians through the generations. The College is one of the very few in the nation still requiring these comprehensive exams, demonstrating academic rigor and mastery. In addition, we begin our observance this year of the 170th anniversary of Bethany’s founding as one of a handful of colleges in this region before the Civil War. Our Founder’s Day celebration on March 4 will feature Dr. Walter M. Bortz, III, Class of ’67, former president of Hampden-Sydney College and a widely recognized leader in higher education.
Had a time capsule been embedded at Bethany College in 1840, the year of its founding, what might it have contained? It is instructive to speculate. Almost certainly, it would have held a Bible; founder Alexander Campbell, an ordained minister, was a leading theologian of his time. Perhaps we would find some of President Campbell’s voluminous correspondence with both educational and religious leaders from around the country and the world. We would see a copy of the College’s original charter—from the Commonwealth of Virginia, as West Virginia was not established as a state until 1863. These imagined contents represent quite a contrast with what we might place in a similar capsule today—a BlackBerry? Laptop? Modern sports equipment?
Beyond the artifacts that illustrate Bethany’s history is our remarkable sense of time and place in history. In 1840, when our college was founded, President Martin Van Buren was in office; in June of that year, Samuel F. B. Morse would receive patents for his new telegraph machine and the code that bears his name; and Abraham Lincoln was still an obscure state legislator in Illinois. There was no electric light bulb, no telephone and no radio. In 1840, at the dawn of the Industrial Age, our nation was overwhelmingly rural. Cows still grazed on what is today Bethany’s beautiful campus. Our serene setting belies the resilience, the academic discipline, and the sense of purpose that have defined us for these 170 years.
In its early days, Bethany’s faculty was all male, with the curriculum—as was common at the time—consisting of classical subjects including Hebrew, Greek, astronomy, rhetoric, mathematics, chemistry, and ancient and modern languages. Today, some of these Nineteenth-Century academic disciplines have been succeeded by modern pre-professional programs in dentistry, engineering, law, medicine, ministry, physical therapy and veterinary medicine. The College has new endorsements for a state-approved program for teaching reading and another for teaching those with autism.
Yet, despite obvious technological advances and other differences, our founder would find much with which to identify and admire today, especially the sense of community, place and vision which continue to distinguish Bethany College. The historic link with the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) continues to inform our mission and values. Social groups and honor societies still play a large role in campus residential life. Our civic activism, such as signing the College and University Presidents Climate Commitment and accompanying “green” initiatives, is more global now, but still reflective of our founder’s belief in the individual’s capacity to effect change.
Although both architecture and campus residential life have changed dramatically over the years, the College’s essential character—emphasizing intellectual freedom, diversity, personal growth, leadership and a close academic community—has continued to flourish. Alexander Campbell envisioned a liberal arts college that would prepare young scholars for positions of leadership and influence. And so we Bethanians carry on that work today. A time capsule of Bethany in 2010 could not hold the innumerable symbols of our modern achievements as an institution, such as the success of our alumni and the gratitude with which they remember the College.
Against the odds, our founder pursued a vision that has led to prominence and recognition as a “small college of national distinction.” I believe those who preceded us would be proud of many recent honors bestowed on us by outside experts including the National Survey of Student Engagement, Barron’s and Fortune magazines, Washington Monthly, U.S. News and World Report, among others. I think they would be proud of a faculty and staff committed to student success. They would be proud of the wise stewardship of our beautiful campus and its traditions amid a natural, scenic location. And, most important, they would be proud of our dedication to intellectual excellence and personal progress, and the courage with which we face the future, as they did.
Fortunately, the 18 Bethany presidents before me were willing to “think big,” to incur formidable risks to make their dreams a reality. This audacity of imagination and creativity serves as a model for us today. We can and should be grateful for those who have preceded us with the nobility of such a vision.
As we work through the 10-Year College Master Plan, Bethany 2020, our College is well positioned to honor our founders while adapting their vision and mission to contemporary challenges of student enrollment and retention, resource development, and academic and co-curricular life. It is a set of challenges they might not thoroughly recognize, but our mastery of them—I am confident—will someday in turn inspire the future stewards of this great college. I invite each of you to join me in this exciting journey.
Scott D. Miller, Ph.D.
President of the College
To see Dr. Miller's biography:
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