Steve Eckman's speech at the ceremony celebrating his new role as York College's 20th president
Christianity has always been at the forefront of the quest for education. While many cultures and belief systems do not value education, Christianity has always seen education as the basis for human growth and development as well as a path to better understanding the Creator.
In 1636 the New College (its official name), was voted into existence by the General Court of the colony of Massachusetts—without a single building, teacher, or student. In 1639 it was re-named in honor of John Harvard, a deceased minister because he bequeathed his library and half of his estate to the fledgling institution. And so Harvard College, the first institution of higher education in America was born.
Harvard was established as a Christian college to advance “piety, civility, and learning” in the Puritan tradition. Before the revolutionary war eight other colleges including Yale, Princeton, Dartmouth and Rutgers were established to join Harvard in the effort to provide higher education. All of these schools began as Christian colleges established for the purpose of training ministers in their respective faith tradition.
American higher education owes its existence to Christianity. However, something has gone terribly wrong in our society and in higher education. In 2006, Harry Lewis, former Dean of Harvard College wrote a book about his perceptions of Harvard and gave it the disturbing title, Excellence Without a Soul: How a Great University Forgot Education. He states
"Deep changes have occurred in these old colleges…Old institutional structures survive, but many have lost their meaning. The curriculum is richer than ever, but it is no longer wrapped around any identifiable ideals. Professors still give grades to students, but the grades are now credentials for graduate schools rather than instructional feedback from professor to student. The disciplinary system has evolved into an adversarial mini-court rather than an instrument of moral instruction, an opportunity to help the young grow up and become responsible adults…"
He goes on to state
"Harvard and our other great universities lost sight of the essential purpose of undergraduate education. Education is not the teaching of dates and formulas and laws and names and places. Education, in fact, is not mere classroom teaching at all. Pedagogy is often excellent at research universities, and often not. But whether they experienced good or bad classroom teaching, college graduates who [attend] their twenty-fifth reunion realize that almost none of the facts and figures stuck to their ribs. They are more likely to remember a brilliant instructor than what that instructor taught…"
In short, [Lewis says]
"Universities have forgotten…that the fundamental job of undergraduate education is to turn eighteen- and nineteen-year-olds into twenty-one and twenty-two-year olds, to help them grow up, to learn who they are, to search for a larger purpose for their lives, and to leave college as better human beings."
Lewis’ concerns are echoed by others. There are great concerns within and without higher education about where it is going. More importantly to this audience, there are concerns about what we refer to as uniquely Christian education. Alumni and friends have not only the right, but the obligation to ask those same questions of York College. Will York College remain true to its values and its heritage?
Boards of trustees have the ultimate responsibility for policy, direction and viability of a college. The York College Board of Trustees has made some difficult decisions to ensure the future viability of the school. Due to the hard decisions they made and the strong leadership they provide, York College is stronger financially than it has been in many years. It is my opinion that history will see this period as a turning point for York College.
But finances are a small part of what a college is about. More recently, this Board of Trustees turned its attention to the mission of York College. Why should this College exist; what is unique about it. After struggling with these questions they arrived at this statement: “The mission of York Colleges is to transform lives through Christ-centered education and to equip students for lifelong service to God, family and society.”
This statement succinctly summarizes what we try to do here. The faculty, staff and administration are committed to providing the atmosphere, opportunity, education and direction for those who attend this institution to grow socially, intellectually and spiritually.
This is a transforming place. As I travel and talk to alumni, they are not as concerned about finances as they are that York College provides the same life-shaping experience they had while attending. I can confidently respond in the affirmative. The “York Experience” as we like to call it is stronger than ever. Earlier I quoted Harry Lewis’ book when he says:
I can state without reservation that York College strives for every student to find a larger purpose for their lives and to leave here not just as better human beings, but people dedicated to serving God. Many of them find God here for the first time in their lives, or relate to Him in more meaningful and personal ways. God is in this place.
Christ-centered education speaks not only to the content but also to the quality of education at York College. Because we are Christ-centered we hire teachers who have values that require them to be the best at what they do. Furthermore, Christ-centered faculty members care about their students, care about what they learn, care about the lives that they lead and what kind of people they will become.
On a more personal note, while I am honored to stand in this place, in many ways I am not equal to the task. Becoming a college president was never my goal and something I never aspired to. I relate to my Old Testament hero Moses when standing before God at the burning bush as Yahweh has just given him his new assignment at 80 years of age. I am sure the literal translation of the Hebrew in Exodus 3:11 is something like “Who ME?!” Over his protestations, God tells Moses, it is not about you, it's about ME. This day, this presidency is not about me, it is not about any one person, it is about God. This place is about God.
The continuing story of the people of Israel is the story of hardship and crisis, often due to their own stubbornness. Finally, even God wanted to give up on them. In Exodus 33 God tells Moses that He will no longer go with the people because they are so hardhearted and stubborn. What happens next is, to me, one of the most significant, history-changing, remarkable events in history. Moses appeals to his friend, Yahweh and says “You have said ‘I know you by name and you have found favor with me.’ If I have found favor in your eyes, teach me your ways so I may know you and continue to find favor with you ...” Moses then asks God to reverse His decision and continue to accompany the people.
And God does this remarkable and phenomenal thing; He does exactly what Moses asks! Why, because Moses, the reluctant leader, wants to get closer to God. The course of human history is changed because one man wants a deeper relationship with God.
It reminds me of my favorite New Testament passage. In Acts 17:24-27, Paul in Athens tells the people of Greece, “The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything, because he himself gives all men life and breath and everything else. From one man he made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them and the exact places they should live. God did this so men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us.”
The story of York College has some parallels to the story of Israel. My initial reaction when asked to consider leading this College was like that of Moses, “Who ME?!” I wondered what God has in mind. I am, at least, about 20 years younger than Moses was. However, without God, this task would be impossible and this place would have little meaning. Like the story of Moses, we cannot leave this day, leave this place, unless God goes with us. York College is not about us, it is about God.
The best people in the world come to this place as students. They come as learners, they leave as dear friends. That cannot be said about many other institutions. Our commitment is that their experience here be one that prepares them for service to their communities, their churches, and most important to God.
York College owes much of its success to the fine community that has embraced the idea of a Christian college and supported it through the years with wisdom, advice and financial support. York College belongs to this community, just as it does to our constituents in the churches of Christ, the alumni and friends who support her and her current students.
Let me say to these students who are here. What you do at York College has the ability to influence your entire life. Forty years ago I arrived on this campus as a freshman with no money, little direction, and a struggling faith. It strikes me that I am a freshman again, but in a different role. While I still have no money, life gained meaning for me here and set a direction that, looking back, has God’s fingerprints all over it. You have opportunity to become who you wish to become here. You have not only the tools, but the support. You have people who care about you and want your success. You are why we are here. You are the reason people donate thousands of dollars to support this place. You are the reason everyone of these faculty have prepared themselves for their career. Take advantage of the time you have to learn as much as you can; find out what life has in store for you, and shape who you want to be. Most importantly, remember God is in this place and He wants a relationship with you that will be unique to this place and this time in your life.
I ask for the prayers of all who know of this place, that God will remain with us. That He will guide our vision and our decisions. That this will always be a place where students can come and find much more than a quality education, that it is a place where they encounter God. Where they reach out and find him, though he is never far from each one of us.
While higher education in America may have drifted from its moorings. Christian education at York College is alive and healthy and will remain dedicated to transforming lives and educating people who will become servants to their God, their communities, and society. We will make mistakes as we travel on this journey, but with God’s guidance and support we will do the right thing and continue to be successful.
May God richly bless your lives as you continue to serve Him. I covet your support of this place and what we do here. More importantly, I covet your prayers. Pray that God continues to lead us and support us in whatever we do that is in keeping with His will. Pray that we be defeated in those things that lead us in directions other than His will.
Thank you again for being here and supporting this great place.
Speech given on October 2, 2009
1125 E 8th St
York, NE 68467
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