This past weekend was Family Weekend at George Fox University, and it is one of the most enjoyable times of the year for me. Parents reconnect and renew relationships with their students and I do my best to stay out of their way!
In the midst of all the joy on Friday, someone sent me an article with the title “Liberal arts universities facing challenging times.” The article went on to describe several prominent institutions in the Midwest that are facing declining enrollment, budget deficits, and real mission crises. I always like reading such “encouraging” notes first thing in the morning!
In contrast to the national picture, for the past four years, we have gone through a period of unprecedented growth. We had 1,900 undergraduates five years ago and almost 2,300 this fall. Our engineering, art, nursing and business programs are drawing significant student and parent interest. Our new William Penn Honors Program has drawn record interest and has renewed the liberal arts vision on our campus. Football returned to George Fox in 2014 after 40-plus years and has brought about 140 men to participate (in addition to about 3,000 people per game). We just completed a new dorm (Brandt Hall) and a new beautiful wooden bridge that spans Hess Creek and draws our campus together. Our new dining hall, which will seat 1,000 and face the trees in Hess Creek, is taking shape, as its walls are up. It is on schedule for completion in May of 2016. Our library, with the helpful partnership of the Murdock Foundation, has been transformed into a digital learning center. We also have a new partnership with that famous Oregon company, Bob’s Red Mill, to improve the nutrition and health habits of our students! The mission of George Fox University is more vibrant today than it ever has been.
All the “good” things that are happening at George Fox are the result of our commitment to Christ, and it is often expressed in our “Be Known” vision. From the day that George Fox was created almost 125 years ago, the founders wanted a university where students would be prepared well academically and encouraged to deepen their relationship with God. We remain committed to that mission today.
This past week I gathered my Presidential Advisory Group on campus, and they interacted with 10 students. They talked to them about why they came to George Fox, what they liked best about the experience, and if they believed the university prepared them well for the future. In those conversations four words kept coming to the forefront – community, relationships, heart and opportunity. They convinced our board members that there was something unique about the community we call George Fox University. People, including the president, are known here by their first names. One of the students I have known the best, Elise Heidy, wrote this when we asked her about her George Fox University experience:
“I graduated with a BSW (Bachelor of Science in Social Work). However, prior to becoming a social worker I was a biology major pursuing medicine. During college I thought perhaps I missed the boat by switching so late to social work. Now what I have found is that the Lord was using my science/medical background to couple with the social work foundation that George Fox gave me. George Fox also created a safe place where I was able to grow in my relationship with Jesus Christ.” Elise is serving the Jie people in northern Uganda.
Like a number of George Fox faculty and staff, Ruth and I have a Life Group that meets in our home on Thursday evenings. We eat together and then we talk about segments of C. S. Lewis’ work, Mere Christianity. Last night one of the passages we discussed reads this way: “Faith is the art of holding on to things your reason has once accepted, in spite of your changing moods. For moods will change, whatever view your reason takes. . . . We have to be continually reminded of what we believe. It must be fed. And as a matter of fact, if you examined a hundred people who had lost their faith in Christianity, I wonder how many of them would turn out to have been reasoned out of it by honest argument?”
Lewis answers the question by noting “not anyone I know.” They all left the faith one small step at a time until faith was no longer real to them. It was Lewis’ contention that “we must cultivate” our faith through practices that remind us why we chose God in the first place. Paul, in writing to his son in Christ, Timothy, put it this way: “I am reminded of the faith that first lived in your grandmother Lois and then in your mother Eunice and now it resides in you.” Paul notes that it was no accident that Timothy was a leader in the Christian movement in the first century. His mother and grandmother had invested in him – they had fanned the flame that they planted when he was a child.
At George Fox we are trying to build a rhythm of life that includes prayer, chapel, the reading of the Bible, Life Groups and dozens of other ways that remind students of the faith commitment that resides within them. Ultimately, we want to be strong partners with parents and churches as we try to help students mature as people and in their relationship with God.