As 2020 began, I had the good fortune to accept my second presidency and to return to the place where my higher education career began over 30 years ago. Looking out the window, a much larger window than that in my first tiny office on campus, I can see the University of Mount Union’s past, present, and a bit of our future. Chapman Hall, our first significant structure on campus, continues to feature classic Romanesque architecture and the tiny window of my former office near the cupola that has been an icon on campus for many decades.
When I accepted my first presidency at Misericordia University in 2013, I received congratulations from friends old and new. As the 13th president, it was my honor to move us through a time of facility and endowment growth, student success, and work with faculty and staff colleagues who understood the power of mission. Early in 2020, I assumed that would be the pattern for my arrival at Mount Union in July. I was, of course, wrong.
My arrival was greeted with congratulations that were often followed with “you picked a really difficult time to move to a new presidency.” Yes, it has been difficult, but being a university president is joyful and exhausting, planned and unexpected, all while being surrounded by many advisors in our academic and local communities yet alone in decisions. Many may conclude that this is the most difficult and challenging time to be a president. I don’t believe that to be true. At Mount Union, we have survived World War I, World War II, the Great Depression, countless times of civil rights unrest, wars in both Korea and Vietnam, and much more.
Mount Union was founded in 1846, 15 years before the start of the Civil War in April 1861. Around this time, planning began the Mount Union campus for a three-story building with an observatory. Construction was to begin in January 1862 and be completed by August 1863.
It appears that 1862 had much in common with 2020. Issues of race, centered on slavery, had launched a war that would claim 620,000 soldier lives. Disease, which claimed even more soldier lives than combat, was rampant throughout the country. Locally, the Methodists who built Mount Union had many challenges working with local Quakers and agnostics. The history of the college notes that a group of students in an “open and defiant manner” displayed a “spirit of general insubordination to the college authority.” Students were to remain on campus and could be expelled for venturing into the town of Alliance. It was, generally, a most challenging time to contemplate moving forward with a large construction project, especially without labor to build, construction materials, or any significant amount of money. The expenditures for Chapman Hall totaled about $20,000 of the $100,000 value of the building as the many donors would not give up in their efforts to create a place for future generations of students.
Mount Union’s founder and first president, Orville Nelson Hartshorn, who led the institution during this tumultuous time, stated “The school is a community, and should be a model of the society for which it is to prepare and fit the minds of its members… All youth of either sex, and of whatever rank or condition, have a natural and equal right to the full and harmonious education of all their faculties.” Women comprised one-fourth of the student body in the early years. He called for the new select school to be a place “where men and women could be educated with equal opportunity, where science would parallel the humanities, where laboratory and experimental subjects would receive proper emphasis, and where there would be no distinction due to race, color, sex or position.” After 174 years, Hartshorn’s vision for the select school that is now the University of Mount Union remains forward-looking and inspirational, calling us to work collaboratively.
In a show of unity and cooperation, the people of Alliance believed in the importance of education, and while they were not completely in agreement with the Methodist traditions, they provided labor, materials, and financial support to the project, which was completed in 1864. While over time, three companies of Mount Union volunteers joined the original 15 students who left school to volunteer in the war effort. Yet, the future was decidedly positive. The editor of the Salem Republican, a local newspaper, noted in 1864 that “We are gratified to learn of the great success of Mount Union College. There never was a time in the history when such favorable prospects for crowded halls and full classes loomed up before its future, as now.”
Returning to 2020, it is an honor to have followed 12 presidents who moved Mount Union College forward to become the University of Mount Union. Thousands of students, faculty, staff, coaches, donors, and community friends have turned Hartshorn’s vision into a strong reality. Faced with both a global pandemic and continued civil unrest stemming from racism, we are faced with many choices. We are committed to teaching students, as we have been each year since 1846, to the very best of our ability. Our faculty are meeting our students in person and online, working diligently to transform recent high school graduates into accomplished university graduates who embody our mission “to prepare students for fulfilling lives, meaningful work, and responsible citizenship.”
This year is indeed one of the most difficult times for our communities and our nation. As we struggle with two deadly viruses, COVID-19 and racism, we must find the will and ambition to continue to move forward through education of our present and future students. Taking our lessons from the very ambitious residents of Alliance, Ohio in the 1860s, we will continue to aspire to the greater good promised of higher education. We will celebrate our 175th year in 2021 and anticipate it to be a start to an even more promising future.