The Importance of Place

I took my usual early morning walk around the campus today, and I was struck by how much quieter, how much emptier the campus feels during the summer when so many of our students are away for summer employment, internships, and other experiences. I couldn’t help but think about many college campuses today that are like this year round, as they have embraced an alternative to the residential campus or even the standard classroom experience, having invested heavily in online or distance learning.

Some institutions have been very successful with this form of educational delivery (at least in terms of the number of students enrolled), and Methodist is indeed investing in the latest technology and learning strategies to complement classroom experiences with online learning opportunities. But how different we would be if this was the core of our existence and we abandoned our more traditional classroom delivery in favor of distance learning. This is because Methodist believes fundamentally in “the importance of place.”

During a normal class day, I walk across the campus and greet students as they move from one place to another. Would that nursing student have the same opportunity if not for this place?  Would that football player be able to be a member of the Monarchs online? Would that PGM student develop her game in the same way if she didn’t have “Down Back” and our wonderful facilities? Would that SGA senator be involved in a leadership activity in a different environment? Methodist University has continued to grow because of niche offerings that have become signature programs. Our health sciences programs, NCAA Division III sports, professional management programs, and student organizations are just four examples of those successes. Without the “portal” that MU presents to prospective students, they might not be here or on any other university campus for that matter.

David Brooks of the New York Times, a skeptic of online learning, believes that college students need to find a home for character building. He also believes that faith-based institutions (like Methodist) are generally more involved in shaping character and force students to deal with moral dilemmas and values. He goes on to note that the culture of a university is what affects students and makes them who they are. Could this be done online? One of the fundamental missions of Methodist University is to prepare students to live lives of meaning and purpose.  We think we can do this best by spending time with faculty, staff and fellow students on the campus, especially given our vibrant campus ministry program with all of its options and the MU Journey which encourages engagement in the community, leadership opportunities, undergraduate research, and study abroad. Each of these experiences is maximized by interacting with others in a shared space.

This blog post is not intended to bash the many wonderful benefits of technology, including its role on a university campus. This includes Methodist where we recently moved to make the entire main campus (other than athletic fields) wireless, expanded the bandwidth to increase speed of access to technology, and provided additional resources and staffing to serve our students.  We are also investing in technology to enhance the classroom learning experience, made possible, in part, through a Title III grant that has supported instructional technology. And finally, we are launching a new initiative this fall to expand our online capabilities to assist our students with degree completion. But these investments and initiatives are meant to complement our place-based education and to enable students who face special challenges to pursue a hybrid model that will make it possible for them to earn an MU degree.

Methodist University is about place. More important, it is about people who call this place home.  It is about a “culture of excellence,” which is comprised of signature people, programs, and facilities. And as I have said many times before, without signature people, the other two wouldn’t matter. Without signature people, place wouldn’t matter.

Methodist University is so blessed to have this place and signature people who care. That is why, at this “place-based university,” the “Best Is Yet to Be.”

Ben Hancock

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