In the explanation of its decision Monday to stop playing "The Star Spangled Banner" at select campus sporting events, the Goshen College Board of Directors described how focused it is on its vision of being a leader in liberal arts education and serving theological, political, racial and ethnic diversity both inside and outside the Mennonite church.
The decision to begin playing an instrumental version of the anthem, followed by a prayer for peace, before athletic events was made in January 2010 at the recommendation of the President’s Council headed by GC President James Brenneman. It was put into practice in March 2010 before a baseball game. Reporters from the Chicago Tribune and The New York Times were even on hand to chronicle the event.
Once it was over, there seemed to be a collective sigh of, "That was it?" The umpire yelled, "play ball," the media circus packed up its tent and that was that. The Goshen News believed at the time — and still does — that GC’s decision to begin playing the national anthem was an honorable gesture that helped ease some of the strains of yesteryear between a college with pacifist ideals and a broader community proud of its sons and daughters serving in the United States military.
That olive branch has essentially been yanked back by the board of directors and packed away.
"It is the Board’s judgment," the board’s recent decision statement read, "that continuing to play the national anthem compromises our ability to advance the vision together. As a result, the President should find an alternative to playing the National Anthem that fits with sports tradition, that honors country, that resonates with our core values and that respects the views of diverse constituencies."
We know the leaders at Goshen College are well within their constitutional rights to either play the anthem or not play the anthem. It’s their ship and they can sail it in whatever direction they choose. Still, we are disappointed that a system that seemed to be well thought-out and working will sink into a sea of discord.
Goshen College remains the only residential college or university in Elkhart County. It is a remarkable asset to the community and ranks consistently high in U.S. News & World Report’s annual list of best liberal arts colleges. The campus, with its ivy colored brick walls, is esthetically pleasing and has been increasingly welcoming to the community.
Goshen College has also been changing over the past several decades. According to the 2009-10 Goshen College fact book, the 2009 fall enrollment of students classified as Mennonites was 496. The 2009 fall enrollment for students classified as non-Mennonite was 360.
In 1965 there were more than 800 Mennonite students enrolled at Goshen College and just over 200 non-Mennonite students. Since then, the paths of the two have moved much closer to each other on the enrollment line graph; the line for Mennonite students trending down and the line for non-Mennonite students trending up.
It seems the most stable formula for embracing diversity is cultivating and then maintaining a mutual respect for the views and ways of another. As the immigration issue has engulfed Goshen over the past decade, Goshen College has been a leader in promoting understanding. We have often commended them for it. We feel their offering of the national anthem to those who may want to hear and respect it was its way of leading by example.
It seems the question at the root of this issue is what kind of college does the board of directors want Goshen College to be. Is it a college so firmly rooted in the beliefs of the Mennonite church that it actually discourages the diversity its leaders try so hard to embrace? Or is it an institution that practices what it preaches and does its best to make its non-Mennonite students, faculty and guests more comfortable?
It’s an ultra-fine line for everyone involved to walk and we appreciate that. We will also respect the "anthem" decision that ends up sticking at Goshen College and remember fondly the year the school truly attempted to lead this community through its own example.