Bethel College chooses new president

For Newton Now

The Board of Directors has unanimously appointed Jonathan C. Gering as the 15th president of Bethel College.

Gering, a Bethel alumnus, and currently professor of biology and founding dean of the School of Science and Mathematics at Truman State University, Kirksville, Missouri, will take office Jan. 29, 2018.

“Jon is a scholar, and proven academic and administrative leader, who will bring energy, vision and a collaborative perspective to Bethel College,” said Bethel board chair Brett Birky, Denver.

A 1994 Bethel honors graduate with a B.A. in biology, Gering went on to earn his master’s and Ph.D. in ecology from Miami University, Oxford, Ohio. He immediately accepted a faculty position in the Department of Biology at Truman in 2001, and has spent the past nine years serving in academic leadership roles.

“The special and uncommon opportunity to be Bethel’s president emerged organically from my leadership experience, affection for the college and interactions with members of the campus community,” Gering said.

Gering and his wife Deborah visited Bethel Sept. 24-25, meeting in both formal and informal settings with various groups of students, faculty, staff, administrators, alumni and community members.

Several themes emerged during this visit. One was the Bethel distinctive of community.

Gering noted that in Professor Emeritus of History Keith Sprunger’s history of Bethel College, Sprunger wrote that the college’s founders had a vision for creating an educational institution that combined the best of the “values of Athens and Jerusalem.”

“Both cities had a sense of community,” Gering said, “which I’m hearing from many of you is important.”

When asked directly what he thinks makes Bethel distinctive, Gering responded first with “community” and then others among what he called “Bethel’s enduring values”: peace and social justice, scholarship, integrity and academic rigor.

Another student asked how he would make “Bethel as a whole into more of a community.”

Gering replied with a quote from an article by William Cronon about the goals of a liberal education, titled “Only Connect.”
The phrase (which originated in a novel by E.M. Forster) challenges people to connect with others to “make sense of the world and act within it in creative ways.”

Gering spoke of his personal experience as a student at Bethel, making deliberate efforts to get to know people he didn’t normally interact with.

“Only connect, because you stand to learn and benefit from it,” he said. “Make a decision to meet and talk with someone different, every day or every week, whatever you’re comfortable with. It’s an act of courage, but well within all of our abilities.”

Another frequently raised theme was campus diversity. When Gering spoke in convocation Sept. 25 and then took questions from students, the first one was “What would be your plan to engage and support minority students?”

Gering’s answer emphasized yet another recurring theme: the need to ask questions and to listen.

“I will go around campus and actively talk with people,” he said. “We’re going to start having conversations that are authentic and meaningful.

“I want to understand what people are experiencing, and the only way I know to do that is to find people, ask the questions and listen to the answers.”

In a question-and-answer period during the faculty and staff reception later that same afternoon, Gering’s answer to “What do you see as the most urgent needs of the college?” was: “Conversations regarding race and diversity need to begin immediately. They cannot wait.”

And when students asked about his vision for Bethel, Gering said, “I would come to campus and listen to what people have to say. I’ve learned from working in higher education administration that if you articulate a vision that no one else believes in or cares about, and you have no buy-in, you’ll end up leaving the institution, and not on good terms.

“I’m going to come here to listen to members of [the administrative] cabinet, members of the community, students. I’m confident we can find areas of overlap and take Bethel forward.”

“It’s not for me to tell all of you what the vision is. Of course, there are things that need to get done [related to student numbers, financial health and so on], but there are lots of other aspects that need to be informed by the people who [make up the campus community].”
When another student asked why Gering was seeking the position of Bethel president, he said, “You don’t become a college president for personal gain but to make the organization, and the people in it, better.

“It’s about lifting Bethel up as much as possible.”

“Jon and Deborah’s September visit to campus and the ensuing conversations with students, faculty, staff, college administration, alumni, church leaders and community leaders provided a thoughtful and powerful opportunity for additional engagement,” Birky said.

“Feedback from participants offered great support for Jon Gering as the next president of Bethel College, as well as insight into the joys and concerns of passionate Bethel voices.

“The next several months for Jon Gering will be filled with transition planning and relocation. He will be attending leadership workshops in college development and anti-racism/anti-oppression.”

A native of Ritzville, Washington, who grew up in Menno Mennonite Church there, Gering received both academic and athletic scholarships to attend Bethel. He played football, and was an NAIA Academic All-American in 1994.

Gering rose to the top of the list after the Presidential Search Committee (composed of board, alumni, faculty, staff and Western District Conference representatives), working since December 2016, sifted 80 initial candidates down to three finalists. These met face-to-face with the Search Committee in Wichita at the end of July.

Jon and Deborah (Ediger) Gering, a Newton native, met at Bethel. Deborah attended Bethel for two years, before completing a bachelor’s degrees in speech-language pathology and education, and then a master’s degree in speech-language pathology, at Miami University.

The Gerings have three children: Benjamin, 14, Emma, 10, and Emerson, 8.