May 22, 2024

Three days before the 500th anniversary of the posting of Martin Luther’s 95 Theses, I was consumed with the spirit of reformation. On a Saturday evening, I sat alone amongst the pews of the dark and empty Weaver Chapel, listening to the silence.

In the tradition of Luther himself, and of the brilliant and forward-thinking minds that came before me at Wittenberg, I had begun to concern myself with making things better for those who would come after me. Though I had just arrived on campus in Aug. 2017, I had quickly noticed that the campus environment was not working well for lots of my peers, myself included. There seemed on the ground to be a complete lack of direction from on high: were we an elite liberal arts institution, a regional school or nothing more than an expensive sports team? The answer was unclear.

It hadn’t taken me long to find others who thought the same way I did. With the help of a few admissions counselors and the fleeting attention of an interim financial director, we created a group that would help to propose a long-term strategic plan for Wittenberg, solving both the problems we felt on the ground and the growing (or shrinking) pains the administrators themselves reported feeling.

Our work soon merged into the extant Facilities Master Plan, an ongoing effort led by the MacLachlan, Cornelius and Filoni architectural firm, the same group that led the development of Hollenbeck Hall. This plan would improve educational buildings, residence halls and ‘Burbs residences to improve the quality of the campus experience and reevaluate the university offerings system.

My involvement with the Master Plan is seated among my most treasured experiences at Wittenberg. Heated debates over communities, recruitment methods and proposals on what to do with outdated buildings were constants of my first year on campus. Living in Myers Hall, the nucleus of Wittenberg’s history, I felt the immediate urgency of reclaiming the spirit of the liberal arts through these plans. The history, so untouched in that building, drove my passion for passing on the light I saw in Wittenberg to others.

For Braeden Bowen (’21), Weaver Chapel has been a place of tranquility on campus. Photo by Braeden Bowen (’21).

So on that late October day in Weaver Chapel, awaiting the semi-millenarian anniversary of total reformation itself, I basked in the tradition I was to carry on and pondered our new Wittenberg Reformation. What I then did not consider was what would follow Luther’s daring new path: war.

Of course, conflict lay not far ahead. The administration and the board, who had rapidly coalesced around a new president, seemed invested only in a strategy to mitigate loss in the short term, not avoid it in the future. My group of disparate students, armed only with our passions, concocted plans totaling over $500 million across the next 25 years, including significant renovations and investments in student experience. Our hegemons’ short-term mitigation strategy did not align well with their students’ strategy for truly passing on light, so our pursuit of such a strategy was swiftly and deftly swept under the rug.

As quickly as it began, the “master plan” that Wittenberg publicly announced in the spring of 2018 seemed to dissolve into thin air. Hiding underground, the few of us that remained intact beyond that spring watched the construction of a red behemoth squelch our hopes for that reformation. The “Steemer,” now complete, stands as a daily reminder.

Years later, just weeks before the COVID-19 pandemic swept across the world, my dreams of a cultural Wittenberg reformation were revitalized: protests and walkouts, predicated on the administration’s firing of a deeply disproportionate number of outspoken Black and women faculty, erupted across campus. Amidst a thundering rebuke of a private mixer for the Board of Directors, students, chanting in unison and crying out for justice, were intimidated, demeaned or outright ignored by their alumni hegemons. A speech from a Lutheran pastor, an alum and member of the board, spectacularly failed to pacify the steaming rage in the air. This behavior only highlighted the chasmal rift between the energized and proactive students that saw the inherent value of the Wittenberg ethos and the hegemonic powers above them, who seemed listless at best in their own passions for the school.

A Feb. 14, 2020 walkout in support of Wittenberg professors ended at a rally in front of Recitation Hall. Photo by Braeden Bowen (“21).

The heat of these protests culminated in a Valentine’s Day walkout, when dozens of students marched in the bitter cold and snow to post their own 95 Theses on the president’s door in Recitation Hall. Although symbolic, the boiling passions of those students was palpable as their rhythmic chants echoed violently through the halls of the historic building. The Theses, which I had the opportunity to help revise (but not conceive, gratefully), outlined a new vision: a Wittenberg not only financially and strategically responsible, but culturally proactive and aware. The looming pandemic served to dissolve the flourishing momentum this moment attracted, once again allowing the administration to continue as planned.

I do not wish to spend time slandering the administration– I only hope to characterize my Wittenberg.

The Wittenberg I expected was one which embodied the actions and beliefs of Martin Luther and the revolutionary aura of the original Lutherstadt Wittenberg. So much of our culture, our campus and our ethos were built from that tradition of modernity, reformation and foresight.

The Wittenberg I expected was one that fiercely defended erudition, exploration and the passage of light above all else. Our status as a historic, elite and decorated small liberal arts college rests squarely on those pillars.

The Wittenberg I expected was one steeped in the liberal arts tradition and embellished with the principles of continuous improvement and great reverence for education and engagement of all of its students across a breadth of subjects and opportunities.

The Wittenberg I expected was one which cared deeply for its students, their voice and their vision for our shared climate.

The Wittenberg I expected, at the very least, was one which recognized that students, those holding in their pockets the salaries of professors and administrators, own the ultimate power of the purse and own a majority stake in the creation of a consumer experience.

The Wittenberg I lived at, though, was one shattered in two. On one edge, a remnant of students and professors captivated by and morally indebted to the liberal arts. On the other, a sea of apathy so pervasive that it infested students, staff, faculty and, most dangerously, administrators and directors.

My relationships with professors, those intimately dedicated to their craft and their knowledge, have been unparalleled. The passion I see in the shattered edge of the proactive student body remains amongst professors who augured this imminent division for decades before I ever saw it. Their enthusiasm for erudition and education remains the sole factor in my decision to stay at Wittenberg for my full undergraduate tenure and has driven me to continue to push for reformation amongst my peers.

The passion for Wittenberg and the drive to pass on light has not yet been extinguished here, but it faces a grave and existential threat as extenuating circumstances push our school to the brink of total crisis. Band-aids have patched hemorrhagic bleeding and endless offensives towards the systemization of sports and entry-level academics have soundly bastardized the ethos of the liberal arts that Wittenberg once prided itself on.

Bandages and amputation will no longer suffice to heal the corporeal wounds caused by the ongoing war for Wittenberg’s future: now, I believe, only a total reimagination of the campus culture and a thorough reevaluation of the tradition of liberal arts education holds the keys to revitalized light.

Although the fight I embarked upon during my four years at Wittenberg has not been nearly as violent or consequential as that of the original Lutheran Reformation (and I am certainly no Martin Luther), the underlying conflict is still as existential for our Wittenberg as it was for Luther’s own Wittenberg. Our university faces a looming reckoning, from its budget to its enrollment to its aging facilities to its very culture.

My hope, as I say my goodbyes to my beloved campus and its shattered edge of hopeful, impassioned students, is that the spark will remain amongst them, a flame enough to burn through the battlements that sequester the shining light of the college that I love so dearly.

Please burn on.

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