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Mission and tradition:
President Tipson explores the church-university relationship

tipsonWhen I became Wittenberg’s 12th president in the summer of 1995, I made a point of visiting the bishops of each of the six Lutheran synods to which Wittenberg is formally related: Northeast, Northwest and Southern Ohio, Southeast and Northeast Lower Michigan and Indiana-Kentucky. Part of my purpose was simply to get acquainted, but I also had a more serious agenda: I wanted to know what they expected from Wittenberg as a university related to the church.

Bishops are extraordinarily busy people, and my hosts were invariably cordial. In fact, I often sensed their gratitude for a chance to get out of the office and share a non-threatening meal. But they, like many pastors with whom I have talked, were uncertain how to advise me about Wittenberg’s support for the church. They assured me that Wittenberg had a fine reputation; they expressed concern that our tuition was a real stretch for many families; they spoke of Wittenberg graduates who were making exceptional contributions as clergy and laypeople; they sometimes had concerns about young people who had found their faith challenged in the college environment. But how, I asked, would they measure our success; what made us a “good” university in the Lutheran tradition, and how could we be better? Apart from encouraging us to continue recruiting Lutheran students and faculty, and from maintaining a vital program of worship led by dedicated pastors, they found it difficult to answer.

I soon decided that the challenge of defining Wittenberg’s relationship to the church would fall largely to me and my colleagues on the faculty and staff, not because bishops were uninterested but because their time and intellectual energy was being consumed by a host of more pressing administrative concerns. Personally, I have given a lot of thought to responding to that challenge during the past seven and a half years. Some of that thinking is contained in the Winter 1997 and Winter 2002 issues of Intersections, published by the Division of Higher Education and Schools of the ELCA, but I will offer a few important points here.

First, our relationship to the church does not mean that students and faculty will be limited in their search for truth. On the contrary, Wittenbergers can be proud — and newly hired faculty can be assured — that the Lutheran tradition encourages the search for truth wherever it leads. Darwinian nature may appear to be without meaning or purpose; the universe may appear unimaginably vast (and human life insignificant by comparison); history may seem to show that, as Leo Durocher once said, “good guys finish last.” But in a culture where students can be tempted to see truth claims as no more than the “spin” put on events by powerful interest groups, our tradition insists that truth can be separated from falsehood, that its pursuit is one of the highest aims of human existence, and that all truth ultimately leads to God. 

Just as we do not shrink from conclusions because they appear to contradict some cherished dogma, we also encourage faculty and students to reflect critically on the meaning of what they conclude. Not all truth, no matter how rigorously arrived at, is morally neutral. Should the new interstate destroy a family farm so that hundreds of people can cut five minutes off their commute? What kind of research on animals is justified to develop new cures for human diseases? Conversations about such issues spill out of the classroom into faculty offices and student apartments. If there is a “Lutheran position,” it is respected but by no means granted the field.

Second, non-Lutherans and non-Christians, are not second-class citizens in our community. We value their experiences and perspectives; we are richer for their presence and their gifts. We try to be honest with them about who we are and what we cherish in our tradition, but there is no pressure, overt or subtle, to bring them into the Lutheran camp. Many of the most significant upholders of Wittenberg’s church relationship are not themselves Lutheran.

Third, much of what makes the Wittenberg experience distinctive stems in no small part from our 160-year relationship to the church. I have already spoken of our deep commitment to truth and the liberal arts, but our Strategic Plan sets out three additional expectations for every Wittenberg graduate: learning to take moral responsibility, learning to lead (understanding leadership in the New Testament sense as service to others), and finding a vocation (a profession through which one can serve the community).

Our statement of non-discrimination echoes the church’s commitment to welcoming all regardless of ethnicity, gender, religious convictions or sexual orientation. A strong commitment to social justice is embodied in the expectation that every student perform service activity in the local community.
In these and other ways, we remind our students and ourselves of the importance of grounding our actions and goals in enduring values. Other religious traditions might endorse similar values, but it is our tradition that nurtures them here.  

— Baird Tipson
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