Continually Building a Learning Community
Month after month throughout the school year, Northwest University hosts visiting, prospective students for an immersion experience on campus called “Northwest Fridays.” As President, I greet them and their parents and talk about the Mission Statement of Northwest University, which I personally wrote as part of an 18-month process of appreciative inquiry to discern the deepest values and aims of our historic and present people. “We the people,” I quote from memory . . .
As I exegete the statement, line by line, precept by precept, I explain what it means to us to be a “learning community.” It means that everyone at Northwest is a teacher, and everyone is a learner. Our learned professors bring lifetimes of study and experience, but new freshman also bring knowledge to us. Every generation sees the world through its own eyes, and each one sees things the others don’t see. In the classrooms, the dorm lounges and rooms, the concert halls, the chapel services, the fitness center, and on athletic fields and courts and bleachers, we are all teachers, and we are all learners. I always point out that there are things athletes learn through sports that are not as easily learned in other university activities—things like teamwork, discipline, competitiveness, persistence, gradual improvement and mastery, playing our way back from injury. Even as athletes learn on the courts and fields, they teach the rest of us.
Sports have been a crucial part of the educational experience since Plato taught Aristotle in the academy. As the Duke of Wellington was once famously quoted as saying, “The Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eaton.” In America, collegiate athletics became so important in the 20th Century that the popular reputations of universities may be determined more by their athletic teams than by their classrooms and labs. Like other universities, Northwest believes in the deep academic value of athletics. That is why we give monetary awards called “athletic scholarships” to star players. We recognize the scholarly value of their teaching role in our learning community.
The value of athletics for our scholars goes beyond the intercollegiate sports that get the most public attention. We want all of our students to be involved in physical training and conditioning, playing intramural sports, working out in the fitness center, running the streets and paths of beautiful Kirkland, and just unwinding with pick-up games among friends. When I came to Northwest nine years ago as a new president, I had always enjoyed playing golf and occasionally tennis, but I had never kept up a practice of routine physical training. Because I wanted something in common with our athletes, I started running. Within a few weeks, I injured myself and wound up in the training room with our “official” athletes. A bond between us began to form in shared hardship and recovery. I kept running, and have finished four full marathons over the past six years, and many shorter races. The lessons I have learned in training for long distance running have enriched me and made me a better president, and a stronger person.
As a religiously inspired academic community, Northwest University places great emphasis on the concept of spiritual vitality—a key component of our Mission Statement. Anyone who has ever attended a high school pep rally knows that spirit is part of the game. There is a rush in the human spirit when a play is perfectly executed—not only in the athlete, but among the spectators. The perfect shot that wins the game, the beautiful goal that just eludes the defender, the elegant move that can only be described as “poetry in motion.” All of these factors build the human spirit and illustrate the spiritual dimension of athletics. Theologically, Northwest teaches according to Romans 12:1 that God has designed every human activity as a form of worship, and we see athletics precisely as that—an exercise of worship. While we equally value music and science and nursing practice and chapel services and all of our other activities as expressions of worship, none of these outrank athletics. As Harvard University cognitive psychologist Howard Gardner has demonstrated in The Theory of Multiple Intelligences, human beings have at least 8 different kinds of intelligence, and as Christians, we believe they exist for the glory of God.
As beautiful as running in Kirkland can be, and as perfect as it is for summertime beach volleyball, it does not provide an easy environment for year-round training due to our long wet winters. When Dan Willman of Northwest High Performance Tennis first approached me about building a tennis center eight years ago, I was immediately interested. We seriously considered the idea of building such a center on the former Seahawk fields, but ultimately decided that we needed them too much for soccer to give them up. When Dan Willman approached us again a few years later, we figured out that we could make space for the courts if we put parking lots under them. Subject to the approval of the City of Kirkland and the Houghton Community Council, we believe a new tennis facility will greatly enhance our learning community
I was immediately attracted to tennis because of my own sporadic participation in the sport, but also because a new indoor sports facility at Northwest would provide a dry, warm place in the winter that would provide an indoor running track, another informal basketball court, and a space for calisthenics and other sports training. While only a few Northwest students play tennis on the existing outdoor courts, it is amazing that anyone plays on them, since they are currently cracked and possibly unsafe, and they are wet for so many months each year. (We will resurface them this summer as part of our new commitment to tennis.) Building an indoor tennis facility would open up opportunity for students to adopt and develop an elegant sport that can be played throughout their lifespans. In addition, a large new indoor facility would create space for winter events, fairs, contests, concerts, and other creative uses. No other place on campus provides indoor space where our whole campus community can gather.
A corollary of our Mission is our Strategic Plan—the detailed plan for how we will go about fulfilling the Mission. In that plan, we have embedded a slogan: “More Elite, but Less Exclusive.” That slogan expresses our desire to limit the growth of our traditional undergraduate student body to 1,200 students—the same size as Whitman College, Washington’s most highly ranked liberal arts college. While we do not want a large undergraduate student body, as we continue to grow in academic reputation we want to become more selective about who we admit, crafting a highly talented, dazzlingly diverse, spiritually committed student body that we can empower as leaders for the future. At the same time, we plan to increase the number of ways in which students can pursue a Northwest University degree—through extension sites, church partnerships, online programs, and as-yet-undiscovered educational modes. As the Kirkland Campus grows more selective, more and more students who can afford our tuition prices will choose to come (enhancing our ability to help more needy students) and tennis will be an important point of attraction. All of the most prestigious colleges in Washington sponsor intercollegiate tennis—Whitman, Whitworth, Pacific Lutheran, Puget Sound, and their sister institutions in Oregon who play in the Northwest Conference of NCAA Division III. The less selective colleges do not offer tennis. Our strategic plan to make Northwest academically more excellent and financially more secure (the latter being no small consideration) suggests that we should add intercollegiate tennis to our sporting options.
Ethnic diversity is an important part of our vision for Northwest, and we are delighted that Northwest High Performance Tennis invests significant funds in scholarships for students from diverse racial and economic backgrounds to learn to play tennis. Some of those students will find Northwest a compelling option when they are ready for college, and we look forward to adding them to our beautiful, diverse student body—helped by collegiate athletic scholarships partially provided by the tennis center.
Expanding the Community
Northwest University has long committed its campus to serve as a park for Houghton residents, as our popular disc-golf course illustrates. Neighbors walk our campus with their pets throughout the year, especially in the warm, dry months. The Indoor Tennis Facility will provide additional ways for us to serve our neighbors, especially those who play tennis and must drive to other places to find dry courts. I have seldom seen a day in Kirkland—no matter how rainy—when there were no runners on the street, and we believe our indoor running track will attract many neighbors. We want to share our campus with Kirkland, expanding our learning community and enhancing the Town and Gown atmosphere that college towns are famous for. The neighborhood has needs with which we can uniquely engage, and that is central to our mission too.
With excitement about the future,
Joseph Castleberry, President
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