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Dr. Harder announces retirement from Bluffton University in 2018

His is a 17-year affiliation with Bluffton

At the June meeting of the Bluffton University Board of Trustees, board chair Kent Yoder announced that Dr. James M. Harder, Bluffton’s ninth president, has shared his plans to retire on June 30, 2018, after serving in that role for 12 years.

“President Harder is a servant leader who faithfully continues to carry Bluffton University into the 21st century during a time of significant change in higher education,” said Yoder.

“His steady leadership has positioned the university to move forward with new academic programs, global relationships, major campus facility enhancements and to achieve the largest fundraising campaign success in the university’s history.”

Guided university through baseball team tragedy
Yoder also noted how, early in his presidency, Harder guided the university community through its baseball team’s tragedy in 2007 and provided leadership to meet the challenges of the Great Recession of 2008-09. “We have deep appreciation for his steady leadership and legacy,” Yoder said.

Harder became president in August 2006. Since that time, the university has launched 14 new academic programs, including the most recent majors in nursing and in speech-language pathology and audiology, and has made significant enhancements to existing academic, athletic and other co-curricular programs.

The university achieved a successful reaccreditation from the Higher Learning Commission in 2009 along with program reaccreditations in education, social work and music.

In 2012, the university completed the “Extending Our Reach” campaign, the largest in Bluffton’s history, which raised more than $32 million and fully-funded construction of the 60,000 square foot Sommer Center for Health and Fitness Education.

The campaign also established the Nord-Ignat Endowed Chair in Theatre, several endowed faculty and student research grants and a number of student scholarships. Over the last decade support for the annual fund has both grown and remained strong. Giving to endowment has also grown including support for scholarships and future operations.

Campus improvements
Bluffton’s campus has experienced additional significant improvements during President Harder’s 12-year tenure including $3 million in student residence hall renovations and the building of the first on-campus student apartments. Other completed projects included an accessibility addition to College Hall that extended the functionality of the campus’ original building, along with accessibility upgrades to Musselman Library. 

Multiple upgrades to Bluffton’s outdoor athletic facilities have occurred as well, including installation of the all-turf Alumni Field in Salzman Stadium, reconstruction of track and field venues, a relocated softball field, and creation of Memorial Field for baseball and the Circle of Remembrance permanent campus memorial following the 2007 baseball team’s accident.

That tragedy, in an early-morning charter bus accident in Atlanta, Ga., claimed the lives of student-athletes Zachary Arend, David Betts, Cody Holp, Scott Harmon and Tyler Williams, in addition to the bus driver and his wife.

Currently, Bluffton’s “Simply Innovate” comprehensive campaign is more than half way to the university’s $26 million goal that will provide $14.5 million to build the 32,000 square foot Austin E. Knowlton Science Center and additional funds to grow the university endowment and strengthen annual support.

During his tenure Harder worked to expand Bluffton’s global education linkages by supporting its wide range of May term cross-cultural experiences for students, and in 2014 launching Bluffton’s newest semester-long program for students in Guatemala, which includes residency of a Bluffton faculty member each semester.

In addition, Harder has worked to build new relationships in China including faculty and student exchanges with China West Normal University as part of ongoing university efforts to enhance its international student recruiting and support. In April 2016, Harder was a special guest and invited speaker at China West’s 75th anniversary celebration.

“I am grateful for the wonderful support of the Board of Trustees, the Bluffton faculty and staff, and the many generous supporters of the university as together we have carried out our work to extend Bluffton’s enduring educational mission,” said Harder.

“It has also been a privilege as Bluffton’s president to regularly meet Bluffton alumni who are serving and leading in their communities all over the world. I am confident that Bluffton will remain at the forefront of providing students with an education that prepares them for life as well as for vocation, and with insights, skills and values that are so critical for today’s world.”

Outcomes to achieve
“During the year I have remaining there are a number of significant outcomes that I want to achieve for Bluffton,” he added. “These include reaching the finish line on fundraising for the Austin E. Knowlton Science Center, ensuring the university is ready for its next accreditation visit in November 2018, strengthening the university’s enrollment strategy and representing Bluffton as the Mennonite Education Agency (MEA) task force completes its work.”

Harder will also continue in current external roles during the coming year as chair of the Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference’s Council of Presidents, as a member of the Lima/Allen County Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors and as a member of the Village of Bluffton Pathways Board. He will also continue to serve in a volunteer capacity as an organizational consultant for the Mennonite World Conference.

Harder's 17-year Bluffton connection
Harder’s planned retirement next year will conclude a 32-year career in Mennonite higher education. This includes the last 17 years at Bluffton University, where he served for five years as professor of economics and as vice president for institutional planning before being invited to the presidency.

Prior to that, he taught in and chaired the economics and business department at Bethel College in Kansas, his alma mater, for 12 years. He began his career by working as Bethel’s director of public information for three additional years.

Throughout those years, Harder has shared his leadership, organizational and financial management expertise in many different settings. These have included eight years of service as a member of the Executive Board of Mennonite Church USA. 

He also served for 12 years as a board member of the “Mennonite World Review”newspaper.  Currently, Harder serves as chair of the board of the Goodville Mutual Casualty Company in New Holland, Pa.

Harder received his bachelor’s degrees in history and economics/business administration from Bethel College in 1978 and his master’s and Ph.D. in economics from the University of Notre Dame in 1990.  He has published multiple book chapters and numerous articles on topics related to global economic development and environmental sustainability issues, and speaking engagements have taken him to many locations in both the United States and Canada.

Search committee established
The Bluffton University Board of Trustees has appointed incoming vice chair of the board, Cheryl Hacker, a 1981 Bluffton alumna who serves on the fiscal affairs committee and the Simply Innovate campaign committee, to chair the search committee.

In the coming weeks, the executive committee of the board will appoint search committee members comprised of Bluffton trustees, faculty and staff, alumni, students, representatives of the Mennonite Education Agency, Bluffton’s constituent Mennonite church conferences and the local community, with the goal of achieving a presidential transition during the summer of 2018.