Recent from Features
By Steve Neumann
Elizabethtown College’s Fourteenth President, Carl Strikwerda, succeeded in raising the national stature of the college.
Many people study history; some also make history. Carl Strikwerda, fourteenth president of Elizabethtown College, has done both. This June, after eight years of service, Strikwerda and his wife Gail Bossenga will be retiring and moving to Washington, D.C. While the couple will sorely miss their evening walks together across the Elizabethtown College campus or along scenic trails in Lancaster County, they know they’ve helped to shape the Blue Jay community by transforming the campus, creating new programs for students, and raising the national stature of the college. “Carl’s biggest achievement,” says Bob Dolan, chair of the College’s Board of Trustees, “is that early on we asked him to raise the national profile of our liberal arts curriculum and he made it happen.”
For Elizabethtown College, it all began eight years ago, but Strikwerda’s journey began earlier. Starting out as a professor of history, Strikwerda became attracted to administration as a way to build programs and create opportunities that would enhance the educational experiences for students. His positions as associate dean at the University of Kansas and dean at The College of William and Mary, as well as his role as a leader of the Council of Colleges of Arts and Sciences, all prepared him for the transition to a college presidency. “Carl came in running,” says Betty Rider, Senior Vice President of Academic Affairs. “As soon as he arrived, he began working on a strategic plan.” While many new presidents give themselves a year or more to get to know the lay of the land before taking on big projects, Strikwerda immediately got to work. By the end of his first year, the new strategic plan was in place. Another strategic plan followed, five
The plans were student-centered: they aimed to enhance the academic experiences of students, provide an environment conducive to learning, and increase national recognition. Strikwerda’s conception is that a liberal arts education is a holistic one. He is convinced that liberal arts education provides students with more than just the skills to get a good paying job. As he said at the College’s Convocation in 2014, education must be both broad and deep.
“Only an education that is broad, one that helps you learn… about the human and natural world, and an education that is deep, in which you learn how to think about what you know… gives you the opportunity to use your talents and have an impact on the world.”
To implement this vision of education, the first strategic plan under Strikwerda’s direction created the College’s Signature Learning Experiences (SLEs), which guarantee that these guarantee that students will participate in at least two SLEs: research, community-based learning, cross-cultural experiences, internships, and capstone courses. The SLEs, observes Strikwerda, “help ensure that students are prepared to take on the big world they are diving into when they graduate. It’s a deeper level of learning, more than just sitting in a class and getting a grade.” An important part of the future success of students depends upon learning how to do research, that is, how to continue to learn when college is over. To that end, the Summer Creative Arts and Research Program (SCARP), created on Strikwerda’s watch, facilitates independent research by nearly a hundred students each summer under the sponsorship of faculty mentors.
Finding resources to support a broad and deep education for students has been an important part of Strikwerda’s tenure. Originally, a seven-year “Be More Inspired” campaign set a target of $50 million. The goal was increased to $60 million, however, after friends of the College contributed enthusiastically to reach the $50 million in just four years. Strikwerda is proud that the campaign has already surpassed the new $60 million goal, a year ahead of schedule, before he retires in June. “President Strikwerda, along with Vice President David Beidleman, have provided great leadership in truly inspiring alumni and friends of the College to support the funding priorities of the campaign—Building Community, Fulfilling Dreams and Transforming Lives,” says Jim Shreiner ‘73, former chair of the Board of Trustees and chair of the college’s Campaign Steering Committee. “Carl has been an E-town champion from day one,” David Beidleman, Vice President for Institutional Advancement and Community Relations says. “All students, faculty, staff and alumni have remained high on his priority list as individuals.”
Upgrading and expanding facilities on campus were part and parcel of the quest for academic excellence. Many buildings were renovated or constructed: Gibble Auditorium, Thompson Gym, Nicarry Hall, The Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies, the Trostle Finance Lab in the Hoover Business Center, the Earl H. and Anita F. Hess Archives and Special Collections in High Library, and the Bollman Fabrication Laboratory. The Mosaic House was also established in order to provide a gathering place for students of diverse backgrounds and a home for multi-cultural activities. It was the first space intentionally created to provide a supportive, inclusive and welcoming environment for all students, a mission that is close to Strikwerda’s heart.
The “crown jewel” of the last eight years for Strikwerda, however, is the $24 million Bowers Center for Sports, Fitness and Well-being, set to open in summer 2019. “This building really puts E-town on the map for student health and well-being,” says Strikwerda. “The largest project in the history of the College was made possible thanks to Carl’s diligence and unwavering commitment as a fundraiser,” said Beidleman. Strikwerda believes that an integral part of a liberal arts education is to prepare students to attend to their well-being for the duration of their lives. As Strikwerda put it in one of his weekly on-line E-moments: “At Elizabethtown College, we have encouraged intramural sports, recreation, and healthy eating as part of what we want young people to cultivate now in order to shape the rest of their lives…Well-being encompasses a life of purpose.”
Once the Bowers Center is finished, the next big infrastructure change will be making improvements to the College’s residential facilities. This summer, Strikwerda says, the College will begin a year-long project to renovate Hackman Apartments.
In order to raise the College’s national stature, Strikwerda also has worked to strengthen partnerships with national organizations such as the Association of American Colleges and Universities and the Council for Independent Colleges. He led the College in joining the American Talent Initiative and the Landmark Athletic Conference, and enhanced the College’s graduate programs. By the time Strikwerda retires, the college will offer at least six masters programs and has begun planning its first doctoral program, one in Occupational Therapy. Particularly exciting is the new Physician Assistant master’s program, due to welcome its first class in January 2020. Another way Strikwerda has nurtured the academic aspirations of the College has been by securing more grants from foundations such as the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, as well as the creation of the Prestigious Scholarships and Fellowships program. The latter program encourages students to apply for nationally-competitive scholarships, which can range from short-term summer courses to multi-year graduate programs throughout the world. “Before my presidency, only a handful of our students had won Fulbrights,” Strikwerda says. “The first year we created the Program, our students won two Fulbrights, and they have continued to win at least one Fulbright every year, including two this year (2019).” Students have won not only Fulbrights, but other important financial awards, such as Newman Civic Fellowships, which recognize students for their leadership in civic engagement and community service. “Our ‘Educate for Service’ motto,” Strikwerda says, “isn’t just about working to earn money, but working to give back to society. That kind of ethos is what attracted me to the College and what draws many of our students.” “I think Carl truly believes and lives that,” Rider says, “and exercises that both in his personal and professional life.”
Beyond the College itself, Strikwerda has made supporting higher education and the wider community a large part of his presidential work. He has served on the boards for the American Association of Colleges and Universities, the Association of Independent Colleges and Universities of Pennsylvania, the Council for European Studies, and the public radio and TV station witf in Harrisburg. Closer to home, he has been a director on the board of the Lancaster County Economic Development Company (EDC). “Carl comes across as smart, thoughtful, and reserved,” says Lisa Riggs, current president of the Economic Development Company. “So when he chooses to contribute something, you want to listen because he has really good ideas.” Two years ago, the EDC created an initiative called the Center for Regional Analysis, an applied economic research center that provides data to help local businesses and organizations make informed decisions. According to Riggs, many of her organization’s discussions have centered on what it will take for companies to stay and grow in Lancaster County. The biggest issue that they hear from every company is about how to acquire the talent that they need. “When I think about the voice that Carl’s brought to the table,” Riggs says, “it’s about how higher education fits into that conversation, and what responsibility it has to train the productive workforce of tomorrow.”
For some individual Blue Jays, Strikwerda’s impact has been felt most in the classroom. As befits a historian who’s an expert on World War I and the history of globalization, Strikwerda has taught a course every fall called “Peace and War in a Global World.” The theme fits perfectly with the College’s original founding by members of the Church of the Brethren, who maintain a commitment to peace, social justice, and human dignity. “History has always been a way for me to understand how people both react to events and manage to shape them in some ways,” says Strikwerda. “I took President Strikwerda’s class my sophomore year at E-town,” Kayla Gruber ’18 says. “His lectures completely changed my thinking on peace dynamics and the importance of understanding the evolution of politics, geography, history, and conflict in today’s most critical situations.” Gruber, who works for The Hospital and Healthsystem Association of Pennsylvania in Harrisburg, graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Political Science, along with a double minor in International Studies and Peace & Conflict Studies.
As important as the educational impact of his administration and teaching has been, the personal difference that Strikwerda has made in the lives of Elizabethtown students has been just as meaningful. “I remember when Carl and I were sitting on the stage in the Dell, getting ready to welcome the first year students at Induction,” Student Senate president Holly Francescone ‘20 says. “He and I were talking about the ceremony. I expressed how nervous I was about giving my first speech as student body president. He assured me that he was confident I would do a great job, not only in my speech, but in advocating for my peers.” Francescone, a Business major with a Finance concentration and Economics minor, plans on working as a financial advisor upon graduation. “I think I speak on behalf of all E-town students when I say that we will always remember President Strikwerda for his presence on campus,” she says. “He embodied the community feel of the college and encouraged kindness through his words and actions.” Kayla Gruber agrees. “The sincere pride and personal investment he has committed to my progress and growth both during and after my time at Elizabethtown College,” she says, “is the trademark of our E-town College family and Blue Jays Always atmosphere.”
When Strikwerda first took the helm at Elizabethtown College, he said that “being a president gives you a chance to shape the message and build a community.” For him, building a community meant promoting dialogue among its diverse members, and the message to be shaped was “to communicate to the rest of the world just how good E-town is.” In light of what Strikwerda has accomplished, it’s clear that he has succeeded in communicating that message through dedicated service both within and outside the boundaries of Elizabethtown College’s bucolic campus in historic Lancaster County. “Carl has character of the highest caliber, and he’s been dedicated to the growth and advancement of the College from day one,” says Dolan. “He looked hard at what we stood for, and the values of our college, and moved the mission and the values of the College forward.” Shreiner concurs, “President Strikwerda will leave a rich legacy of achievements that have provided much of the foundation for transforming the education and real-life experiences of a new generation of young Blue Jays.”
Strikwerda and his wife, Gail Bossenga, a historian in her own right, and scholar-in-residence at Elizabethtown College, will be moving to Washington, D.C., to continue their varied interests. Strikwerda plans to consult on higher education, teach part-time, and travel abroad with Gail, as well as visit their children who live in Ontario and Oregon. An expert in European history, Strikwerda plans to finish a book he’s been working on about World War I and the history of globalization. Their love for history and walking (Gail typically clocks 12 to 14,000 steps a day on her Fitbit and the couple takes at least a two-mile walk every night), will blend well in the nation’s capital as they plan to explore the city.