Shaped by founders and changed by time, Bethel tries to pinpoint its identity.
By Jasmine Johnson
The first time Holly Haugen knew she would attend Bethel, she was 7 years old.
Wandering through the halls with her grandma and hearing stories about spending time in the coffeeshop for hours, roller skating on the weekends and attending football games from her alumni parents, she was convinced of her love for the university.
“I always told my cousin ‘We’re gonna go here,’” said Haugen, a freshman communications studies major. “I always had a plan of coming.”
When looking into what Bethel has been, is now and will become, the university’s identity can be defined by many different factors: gathering spaces, faith, denomination, enrollment, academics, moving forward. Although these factors also contribute to other postsecondary institutions, director of admissions Bret Hyder says that something about Bethel is different.
“Have you ever been to a bonfire where you sit in someone’s backyard and you’re sitting around with 12 other people but you can’t help but just stare at the fire, because it’s so captivating and it’s so interesting?” Hyder asked. “That’s how we feel about Bethel.”
Psychology professor Kathy Nevins affirmed just how much the university has changed.
She started at Bethel in 1977 as a part of the first group of resident directors. Most of the dorms were owned or leased on property away from the main campus, so a bus system shuttled students in every day from throughout the Twin Cities.
Walking around the 3900 campus today, people can identify the old buildings wherever there is a brick wall. This distinction is most evident when walking through Brushaber Commons, as the indoor area used to be a gap between the two academic buildings.
Before the various lounge areas were established, the P.O. boxes served as a central gathering space for students and faculty. People had access to one another’s mail boxes and sent handwritten notes as their central form of communication.
“I was known for my love of bran muffins, so people would often leave me muffins in my P.O. box,” Bethel alumna and Holly’s mother Wendy Haugen said. “I heard of someone who put a loaf of frozen bread dough in someone’s P.O. at night, so by morning it had risen and filled the box.”
In place of Royal Grounds was the Market Square located in what is now HC2, overlooking the courtyard and displaying the weekly news scattered on nearby tables.
The coffeeshop was converted into the Royal Oak Room once a week. This formal dining experience provided an opportunity for date nights or meetups with friends, an excuse to dress up a little nicer than usual.
Sophomore Anna Martens experienced a moment in her faith that she wasn’t expecting when she attended her first Vespers service.
“I just felt like God was saying this is where you need to be,” Martens said.
The worship band played “Great Is Thy Faithfulness,” which is the song Martens directly associated with her grandmother who had passed away a few years earlier. The plaque outside Kresge Courtyard is dedicated to her, so Martens was able to go out and pray afterwards, thanking God for showing her such a clear sign.
“Bethel just has that feeling of home,” Martens said. “There’s always going to be that professor that you can go talk to or that your mom grew up with.”
Martens’ family connections to the university stretch beyond Bethel as we know it today. From her great grandfather attending the seminary in Chicago to her mother and uncle coming to the university in St. Paul, the song Martens heard at Vespers was more than a coincidence. It gave her a glimpse of Bethel’s faith community.
In the 1980s, chapel services were held daily in the gymnasium. Set up and take down occurred every morning, from unpacking plastic flooring to rolling out the organ on wheels.
Although the time slot and general format of these services remain the same today, there was less student-led worship and more faculty in attendance.
“The most memorable [chapel] was Pastor Bob, who came in on his first week swinging across the gym from a rope to begin his message,” Wendy Haugen said.
“People really saw it as a break in their day to join in community,” Nevins said.
Wendy Haugen and a group of Bethel graduates formed a group called the Anchor Team. They gather together to pray for each other and continue doing so today. Four of the eight friends met their husbands at the university and eight of the group’s children have also enrolled at Bethel.
Bethel is the largest school affiliated with Converge in the Twin Cities area. The original Bethel Seminary, founded in 1871 by John Alexis Edgren, was for Swedish Baptist immigrants.
The university is still closely associated with this denominational foundation, but fewer students recognize the name because of its recent change. Baptist General Conference (BGC) switched its official title to Converge in 2008 because of false stereotypes and increasing international risks around the label of Baptist. According to the Converge website, this name change, “captures the strategy of starting and strengthening churches.”
Today’s megachurches, such as Eagle Brook, Bethlehem Baptist and Calvary, don’t emphasize denominational affiliation. This lack of awareness causes students to base their college of choice on factors unrelated to denomination, partially because they haven’t heard it referred to as Converge before. Instead of automatically transitioning from a Converge church to a Converge university, as used to be the case, many students feel more free to explore other factors in their college decision process, according to Chief Institutional Data and Research Officer Dan Nelson.
“I knew what their foundation and values were, so I wasn’t ever really concerned about the denomination,” Holly Haugen said.
In addition, the church’s focus has changed over the years. Nelson said that where BGC used to cover 10 percent of Bethel’s budget 50 years ago, Converge now pays for less than one percent. Bethel is still affiliated with and connected to Converge in many ways, but not as tightly “owned and operated” as before, according to Nelson. Converge churches have shifted their focus from education to starting and strengthening churches as well as sending missionaries.
“The loyalty to that connection has shifted,” chief of enrollment and marketing Michael Vedders said.
Hyder said that the midwest has become a “tough market” for many postsecondary institutions. It’s more than just a Bethel problem.
“If you think of Bethel getting a slice of the pie, it’s a very stagnant pie,” Hyder said. “It’s not going anywhere, we’re seeing some upticks and some downticks.”
As a part of current enrollment efforts, Royal Nation events are hosted by Alumni and Family Relations throughout the country, from San Francisco to Philadelphia.
Nelson said that the biggest factor affecting Bethel’s enrollment numbers over the last 50 years has been the constantly shifting national demographics since World War II.
He described the baby bust as the gap between the baby boomers and their children. Bethel saw the effects of this national trend in the 1990s, losing 400 incoming students in fall 1992.
Enrollment swelled again in the early 2000s from 1,700 to 2,800. Bethel’s highest CAS enrollment count was 2,842 in 2011.
Since then, the university has been experiencing an echo of the baby bust. National high school graduate numbers have declined and so have the university’s numbers, now sitting just below 2,500. There was another baby bust in 2007 after the national recession and the effects will be clear come 2025.
“I take it all with a grain of salt and it’s just a measure of our ability to manage that, to flex with the circumstances,” Nelson said.
These hard decisions and transitions are part of the reason why the university is still standing today, and that is not going away anytime soon.
Nelson also attributes the increase in quality as one of Bethel’s biggest changes. The 4-year graduation rates have increased from 32 percent in 1982 to 62 percent in 2012. According to Kathy Nevins, many students’ reason for attending Bethel when she first started was solely to find a spouse.
The ring by spring culture was more than a saying or joke. It was a reality and pressure for many. The university’s purpose and draw has since shifted from a Bible institute to an accredited university.
“Back then, Bethel was a place to send your children to get some faith. It was about the integration of faith and learning,” Nelson said. “Bethel didn’t have the reputation of a place you wanted to graduate from, so people would go for a year or two and then transfer.”
Regardless of the ebb and flow of enrollment numbers, one of Nevins’ biggest joys when thinking about Bethel is its size. The campus is large enough to have a wide range of opportunities for students, but doesn’t have an overwhelming amount of competition for the various positions, clubs and groups.
Because the university is developing its academic programs, some people think it’s causing the university to turn away from its faith. Vedders argued that the opposite is true. Students can get just as rigorous of an education here while integrating faith in all they do.
“They have no idea the quality of academics that are happening at this place,” Vedders said. “Christ is still at the center of this place and while that manifests itself in different ways, that’s what makes our graduates unique and different.”
From playing broomball to eating muffins at the Market Square, the Haugen family shared many memories of what Bethel was like in the 1980s and how it has changed over time.
Reflecting on the hiring process and new professors over the years, Nevins has noticed a change in the primary goal of her fellow faculty members. The focus has shifted from the university’s mission to specific fields of study.
“When I came … the faculty here really mentored one another to be loyal to the mission of the university,” Nevins said. “I’m a professor in psychology, not a psychologist who teaches.”
Nevins described the need for a liberal arts learning experience and the importance of a variety of general education requirements.
“We bring to the community of colleagues a desire and an openness to integration and finding interdisciplinary connections and wanting to teach from an interdisciplinary perspective,” Nevins said.
These integration efforts are still present in the general education courses such as Humanities and Christianity in Western Culture, but the number of courses of this nature aren’t filling up as much as they used to. The development of higher moral and ethical thinking takes time, but many students no longer stay for the full four-year process.
Receiving an education for the primary goal of being educated is decreasing, according to Nevins.
No matter the length of time students attend or the changing reasons to receive an education, she still sees the joy in coming to a place like Bethel.
“[College is about] pondering life’s questions and then being able to get up and play broomball,” Nevins said.
“I hope that Bethel’s values will remain the same,” Holly Haugen said. “There will be different professors and pastors, but all the main values will still be centered on Christ.”
In order to maintain steady enrollment growth, Hyder mentioned that the admissions office should start recruiting in different areas. He pointed out their strategy of spreading awareness of Bethel to the five-state region of Iowa, Wisconsin, North Dakota, South Dakota and Minnesota.
“Bethel is super unique because we infuse faith with everything that we do,” Hyder said. “We don’t turn away from tough questions … You are going to learn at Bethel how to view that field and that industry through the lens of Christianity, because it is your lens.”
Although Bethel has always been missionary-minded, there has been a distinct shift to focus on educating as many qualified students as possible, according to Nelson. Neither the business or nursing majors were available areas of study in the early 1970s, so continuing to adjust to the demand for different fields will keep Bethel relevant and applicable to serve the state, country and world. Hyder echoed similar sentiments about Bethel moving forward.
“What better way to go into the market place than to know who you are and whose you are,” Hyder said.