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30 years of LCC: a look through history #9

2022-01-25

In the year 1990, before even the name of LCC existed, Otonas Balčiūnas and Art DeFehr were in discussions with the Lithuanian government about the establishment of an international liberal arts university based on Christian values. Art DeFehr would write lengthy reflections following these meetings with government officials and would send them to people he thought would be interested in following the development of the project. One of the recipients of this newsletter was Jim Mininger, Art’s classmate from his college years.

Fast-forward a couple of years, Jim and his wife Virginia were looking outside the US for the next chapter in their careers. Jim contacted Art DeFehr regarding LCC. Curiously enough, around the same time, the LCC board held a meeting and discussed plans for long-term recruitment for a university president. On the plane back to Canada following the meeting, Art DeFehr found himself wondering how they could quickly find someone with the right credentials for the job. Upon Art’s return home, he found Jim Mininger’s letter, waiting for a reply. “I think I got Art’s call less than 10 minutes later,” laughs Jim, remembering the low level of communication technologies in 1993. Jim had been the Dean of Academics for 17 years at a college in the US and was a perfect fit for LCC.

Jim recalls when he and his wife, Virginia first came to Lithuania. The initial time visiting a former Soviet republic was somewhat of a shock, as the country was so different from the West. “There were no street lights in Klaipėda, and the lights in the houses were extremely dim. The old buildings in the city were equally grim. Virginia and I were impressed by the bright spirit of the LCC students and the faculty, which was in stark contrast to the visual dimness of the physical setting. That was very inviting for us,” reminisces Jim.

The Miningers arrived at LCC when the very first graduating class was in their final year. Unfortunately, there was a problem. Still, in the Spring of 1996, the promise of accreditation had not yet been fulfilled. Jim recalls a particularly tense meeting with the parents of that graduating class at graduation. The parents were quite concerned about their children leaving LCC without a recognized degree. However, the meeting transitioned when one woman whose two daughters were studying at LCC expressed that she had seen such positive change in her children. Jim recounts her words, “‘If the changes that I have seen in my daughters are reflected in the rest of LCC students - this is a place we need to move forward with!’ Those words changed the whole tenor of that meeting.” LCC became accredited a few years later.

What happened to the degrees of those who graduated before accreditation in 1996 - 1999? “Well,” answers Jim, “we let everyone know that they had the opportunity to receive an accredited Bachelor of Arts degree from LCC. The requirement was that they first needed to write a thesis. What was interesting for me to observe was the fact that, at that point, many of our alumni already had gotten their Master’s degrees, and a few even had received their PhDs.” Jim explains, “In a sense, a Bachelor’s degree could have been seen as worthless to them. Who cares about it when you have a Master's and a Ph.D.? And yet many students came back to take a couple of courses and to write their Bachelor thesis anyway. It was a nice testimony to how much the students cared about LCC. So, most of them ended up having the accredited LCC degree in addition to the one they had originally received.”

Jim Mininger was incremental to the development of LCC in other ways, too. He describes LCC in 1995 as a “Bible College” implying much of LCC’s curriculum at the time was focused on Bible studies. “We were fine with building a Christian institution, but we were also looking to build a liberal arts institution,” says the third president, who spent much of his time working on building-up courses, such as moral philosophy, that would be required for an “artes liberales” type of education. “At that time I was also doing most of the recruiting,” shares Jim. A great deal of the instructors had Master’s degrees, and the president was also keen on substantially increasing the number of faculty holding a Ph.D.

Besides having responsibilities as the president of the university, Jim also enjoyed teaching from time to time. For instance, every once in a while he would teach a course in Contemporary Literature. Not because of his degree. His Ph.D. was in European History.  He taught, simply because he was also very interested in the subject. “It was fun to teach. I had a lot of great junior and senior students,” Jim smiles. Later, as the liberal arts curriculum expanded, Jim taught a course on moral philosophy, now known as Ethics class. “Same thing, different name,” expresses Jim. He goes on to explain that he had had a considerable amount of experience in teaching courses in that discipline. Jim loved the concept of the president teaching a course in moral philosophy specifically for the graduating class. “Students in their last semester,” he smiles, “are still in the university, but they are beginning to look beyond the university. They are wondering how their lives are going to be and where their lives are going to go. It’s a great time to teach moral philosophy and ethics. It was standard practice in the universities in the US in the first half of the 20th century,” Mininger says. Yet Jim has more recent experience in teaching too. In the Spring semester of 2015, he taught one semester of History for freshmen students.

Although LCC always had a particularly strong sense of community, this aspect of the university was consciously developed during the later years of Jim’s presidency. “We felt that this close relationship between the students and faculty, and between everyone at LCC could be explained. We started to use the word ‘community’ and we talked about what it meant to be a community,” says Jim. Fortunately enough, LCC has always been a place where people can form close relationships. Jim recalls a moment in the late ’90s where he was talking with some students. “We were talking about what LCC was really about, and we realized it was a place where we worked with each other and grew together. Even at that early stage, there was a sense of community,” he expressed.

Jim recalls one particularly uncomfortable, but important incident in the early 2000s that showed the unity of the LCC community. A couple of the LCC students from Africa were chased and beaten by local extremists. After LCC reached out to the police, the issue got picked up by the national media. Some Lithuanian rock bands even reached out to LCC and organized an anti-racism concert in Klaipėda, where eight or so rock bands played a couple of songs each in the Klaipėda Theater Square, packed full of people including a lot of students from LCC and other local higher education schools. One Lithuanian student approached a group of LCC students and said, “You seem different, you’re all here and you all want to be together.” The LCC students replied, “Yeah, we’re a community. We care about each other, we don’t just simply study together.” Jim shares, “The fact that LCC students still feel that “community” in 2022 is demonstrative of something subtle but incredibly important.”

When asked what other highlights were of his time at LCC, Jim said it was the academic year of 2004-2005, which saw the first big influx of international students from Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, and Romania. There had been international students in the years before also, but the Fall of 2004 was a major shift, snowballing to the present times, as the word of LCC began to spread all around the world. “The class of 2008 was special for Virginia and I,  not only because we got to know the students extremely well, but also because they graduated the same year that we left.”

When asked this final question: How did you grow as a person during the 13 years you spent at LCC? Jim takes a moment to reflect. “The easy answer would be ‘a lot’,” he says. “The longer answer has to do with one particular, scary phrase in our LCC Mission statement: transforming people. We put that word there consciously. When I was talking about it in board meetings I was talking about it as intellectual, spiritual, social, career transformation. But what I came to realize later was that the faculty always came to help transform students, but they themselves were also transformed at LCC as well. A lot of the faculty of LCC comes from fifteen or twenty denominations of church groups: Lutheran, Reformed, Mennonite, Baptist… all kinds of people. Ordinarily, this would be a mess. But here, everyone could set their differences aside and focus on the Mission of LCC, as the statement reads, transforming people. This is a fantastic setting in which to be working, teaching, and studying. There is a eucumentical element that is very, very rare in our world today.”

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