Skip to site content

Military Recruiting Leads to Controversy at EMU

HARRISONBURG, Va. – When military recruiters set up their tables at Eastern Mennonite University Oct. 3, several students and faculty were appalled. EMU administrators, however, said they tried to turn the event into an opportunity to present a Christian witness for nonviolence.

The recruiters – from the Army, Navy, Air Force and U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. – were on campus as part of College Night, a gathering of representatives from 75 colleges and universities from the eastern U.S. The event is organized each year by the local public school district and other organizations, and drew more than 700 prospective college students and their families.

EMU also hosted the event last year in its University Commons, after College Night outgrew its previous home at nearby James Madison University. Military recruiters attended the 2001 event as well, laying the foundation for the controversy among students, faculty and the college administration in late September.

Shirley B. Yoder, EMU’s vice president for marketing and enrollment, said College Night is a major recruiting venue for all the schools involved, including EMU, which sends representatives to more than 100 similar events around the country each year.

After last year’s event – when Yoder said EMU officials were surprised by the presence of military recruiters – faculty, students and administrators discussed the matter in light of the school’s avowed peace witness.

Opinions differ on the outcome of those discussions – some say faculty and student opposition was not taken into account – but the event was allowed to return this year anyway.

Yoder said to cancel the event at the last minute after several faculty and students protested would be unethical. A proposal to get the local district to uninvite the military also was deemed unsuitable.

“What kind of a witness is that?” Yoder said, noting that the military recruiters simply come as part of the College Night package. “[EMU] did not invite the military, nor would we ever invite them.”

Faced with the dilemma – and with rumors that some might picket the event or stage a sit-in at college administration offices – Yoder said school officials tried to turn the situation into an opportunity to witness to others.

They allowed the recruiters to come, but encouraged faculty and students to present their views on war and military service.

“We as Mennonites often deal with conflicts by telling people to go away,” Yoder said. By engaging the recruiters and others with pamphlets and dialogue on war and the Anabaptist peace witness, Yoder said the college faced the deeper challenge of attempting to change hearts and minds in a peaceful, inoffensive manner.

Some students even helped the recruiters set up their displays, Yoder said, and used the chance to start their own discussions.

“I am proud of our students . . . for taking a situation and finding an opportunity in it,” Yoder said.

Ray Gingerich doesn’t think that strategy worked.

A professor of theology and ethics, Gingerich vigorously opposed the presence of the recruiters and thinks EMU administrators handled the situation badly. He believes the decision to allow the recruiters on campus was purely economic, because of the potential for drawing new students to EMU. At the event, “I tried to be a careful observer and listener,” Gingerich said, adding that he engaged the recruiters in a discussion of the issues. “[But] you cannot do what is contrary to our heritage and then try to convert them against it.”

Though he felt a faculty-staffed table presenting peace literature from Mennonite Central Committee and other sources was a creative response from the college, Gingerich was disappointed that more people did not come to voice their opposition.

“The student body did not turn out in force,” Gingerich said. Conrad Erb of Kitchener, Ont., an economics and peace and conflict studies major, was among those who did.

“EMU is not Berkeley in the days of Vietnam,” Erb said. “The campus activism here is sometimes underwhelming.”

Nonetheless, he said about 15 students tried to engage not only the recruiters but the high school students in discussions about military and peace issues. “A few discussions went on for quite a long time,” Erb said, and occasionally grew intense. But he believes EMU administrators should have taken action earlier, and with more attention to student and faculty concerns.

“I think the administration really dropped the ball on this one,” Erb said. “I think they get an F for process.”

Yoder, who doesn’t know if College Night will return to EMU, said the outcome of this year’s gathering was ultimately positive, if only because it attracted hundreds of new people to a Mennonite campus.

“If people want to talk to the military, they’re going to talk to them anyway,” Yoder said. “The military was such a small part of the presence. . . . We believe the good outweighs the harm here.”

This article first appeared in Mennonite Weekly Review. Used by permission.