Return to the Town Square
In his inaugural message of September 2000, Pepperdine University President Andrew K. Benton articulated five major goals that would be addressed simultaneously in the early years of his administration. The fourth of those goals was adopted as the annual theme for the 2003-2004 academic year. President Benton said, "We must be about the business of strengthening our sense of community."He went on to suggest that the University should begin and continue a conversation about what its mission statement means for teaching and learning, for faith and purpose. He also suggested that a University strategic plan that embraces and implements the mission statement and the aspirations of the University's five schools is an important step toward choosing the University's own destiny.
Regarding that, President Benton said, "We must resist the demand that we choose to be either academically excellent or true to our faith. We must be both, or we will have failed." This is a vital discussion because it has to do with the basic identity of Pepperdine. The University has the freedom to be self-determinate. It does not have to be identical to secular universities to be good, and it doesn't have to be identical to other Christian universities to be faithful. "Pepperdine has the right and the mandate to be distinctive and to resist that which crowds us toward the middle - what I often refer to as the ‘great gray middle,'" said President Benton.
The University comprises individual scholars and professionals, with their own talents, experience, and dreams. But as they come together, the sum is greater than the collection of the parts. Together, Pepperdine people become a remarkable whole in which all individuals are lifted to new heights.
As the University began to consider the concept of community, a feature of the American landscape that is quickly disappearing came to mind. In past times, the heart and soul of each small community seemed to be focused on a park in the center of town, known as the "Town Square." In the park was the city hall or perhaps the county courthouse. Often, there was a silent cannon dedicated to the veterans of a costly war.
There were benches where men and women gathered to exchange greetings and news. Nearby, there was grass or sand where children could play. And looking on was a statue or monument honoring a town founder - or a soldier from the community who never returned to his hometown. Surrounding the park were stores, banks, cafes, and churches. It was a place of local government, commerce, faith, and corporate memory. Its precedent can be found in the village greens and town centers of colonial America and in venerable villages of Europe and ancient marketplaces of communities around the world,
A few decades ago, the Town Square was all but abandoned as businesses moved from the town center to shopping malls and strip malls out on the Interstate or arterial highways. The desire for more room and more business was understandable, but over the years many citizens began to have a vague sense of loss. Somehow they knew that the community had become disconnected. The sparkling new commercial centers had left behind the local government, the houses of faith, and especially the corporate memory - the statues and monuments, the honor rolls of heroes, the real identity of the community.
Today, cities and towns are searching for ways to recreate that sense of community, and interestingly, they often are returning to the concept of the village green, the marketplace, the town square. But, whether for reasons of political correctness or simple embarrassment, the contemporary architects and developers often avoid the components of faith, patriotism, and corporate memory.
In the community known as Pepperdine University, there is a desire to purposefully perpetuate something like a Town Square, a gathering place to which the community can go to interact - a heart and soul, if you will. However, it is up to each member to build this distinctive community, by adding individual loyalty, hard work, personal excellence, and unselfishness to that of others. Every part of the community is not the same, but every part contributes to the whole.
There is a real sense in which the Pepperdine community is never complete. It is always in the process of becoming, as each student, each faculty and staff member, and each alumnus adds a dwelling place around the University's Town Square. Bear in mind that Pepperdine's Town Square is both tangible and intangible: there are concrete aspects as well as attitudinal and conceptual aspects to this distinctive community. In speaking of adding "dwelling places" to the Town Square, the emphasis is on philosophic and perhaps spiritual connections to the "heart and soul" of the University.
President Benton put the question to all of the University's constituents, "What do you see in the future of Pepperdine? How will the University look in a year, or in five or ten years?" And he thought not simply of Pepperdine's physical plants, of the campuses in Malibu and around the world. As the University grows, it changes in attitudes, in processes, in spirit. The president added, "It is up to us to decide what we will be in the future. What do we keep; what stays behind?"
As a discussion starter, the president suggested seven of his personal dreams for the future. It is not a comprehensive list, but simply a beginning place as ideas are solicited for discussion. Here is that list for your consideration:
1. The vision of a faculty of national and even international distinction. The University is well on its way in this dream, but it must redouble its efforts in identifying, recruiting, and retaining a world-class, increasingly diverse faculty, each with a genuine faith commitment. "Some say we are asking a lot, but I would like to prove to the world that we can celebrate faith and excellence at the same time and in the same place," said President Benton. To support scholarship among both students and faculty members, the president's desire is to continue to press forward with a significant strengthening of the University libraries.
2. The vision of an unsurpassed level of student and alumni spirit. This is of extreme importance. The University, as a community, must create coordinated programs to take students from a beginning campus tour or graduate campus meeting, through enrollment and academic experiences, culminating in a proud and spirited alumni base that supports its alma mater. "I look forward to seeing alumni joining crowds of students at University events," said the president, "alumni who will hire and mentor graduates and who will encourage their children to work hard in order to attend their alma mater."
3. The vision of Pepperdine as a widely known international presence. The University already has strong international programs, some of the very best. But the dream is of more expansive programs, especially in the Pacific Rim. President Benton commented, "Boldly, I believe we can prepare students, undergraduate and graduate, to contribute on the world stage, working with governments and multinational corporations to make the world a better place."
4. The vision of an increased commitment to faith and service. The University should foster an atmosphere that resonates excitement, where people generate ambitious projects that will improve the human condition throughout the nation and the world. Pepperdine already is attracting students with wonderful, creative ideas. Because of the nature of those students, our programs will address both spiritual and social needs of people, especially in underdeveloped nations. God is the God of the helpless, and if we serve Him, we will serve the helpless.
5. The vision of a long-range commitment to athletics and student recreation. Pepperdine's athletic teams have functioned at an exceptional level for many years. Now the University must move to a level of support for athletics, both in enthusiasm and in funding, that will match their high level of performance. Support must be found to sustain top coaching, to build adequate sporting facilities, and to attract great student-athletes. President Benton added, "We also need to act with determination to offer our students recreation and intramural facilities to encourage health and fitness and to build community."
6. The vision of reconstructing the center of Seaver College's campus to create a gathering place for all students, faculty and staff, and visitors to the Malibu campus. This would be a project to "humanize" the plaza and stairway areas from Stauffer Chapel to Smothers Theatre and beyond, by introducing color and texture (or patina, as one expert called it), with many shaded as well as open spaces. As President Benton suggested, "Within the Malibu campus community, we need our own ‘Main Street.'" This would serve as a friendly "convening place," like the Town Square of yesterday, a place to gather and "exchange greetings and news."
7. The vision of a beautiful and functional University church. For several years, the vision of a church facility, high on the hills near the Drescher Graduate Campus, has been the dream of the few. Now it needs to become the vision of many. This is a church that will minister to the needs of all students, faculty, staff, and Malibu neighbors - and also serve the University as its largest lecture venue. "I see a daycare facility there for the children of Pepperdine families," commented President Benton. "And I desire a place where people can find and then glorify God."
Many of the above visions are not new, but simply restated and reemphasized. There may be others that ought to be considered, as well. It is tremendously exciting to think about the possibilities. As President Benton put it, "What about you? What are your dreams? How will you help this distinctive community become both good and true?"
The Pepperdine community is built of wonderful materials: not simply of steel and stucco, but also of honorable people with a strong sense of purpose, even destiny. The leadership of the University is convinced that there are generous people who believe in Pepperdine's cause and who will rise to support what it sets out to do.
One thing is sure: while Pepperdine increases in academic stature, in the beauty and functionality of its campuses, and in spiritual and ethical commitment and work, it must strive even harder to maintain a sense of community. With the addition of every new person and every new program, the task of encouraging community becomes more difficult. But creating a sense of belonging is worth the effort and the price, as we convene people in Pepperdine's Town Square.