We name and acknowledge: An incomplete history of sexually abusive leaders at Hesston College

June 7, 2023

Hesston-College-Healing-Circle-Memorial-1

White plaster covers the exterior of a circular concrete memorial standing near the center of the Hesston College campus. In view of the three-story red brick administration building, the memorial’s handmade tile interior features splashes of color and fragments of text — “We will remember, we will listen.”

A metal plaque attached to the memorial reads:

With this Healing Circle, Hesston College acknowledges our past shortcomings and errors. We name and acknowledge the acts of violence that have broken the bonds of trust in our community. We resolve to listen and believe those who have experienced harm in our community’s care. We dedicate this circle as a space for individuals and groups to meditate, pray or converse together.

In May 2022, Hesston College completed the Community Healing Circle as the culmination of its response to the college’s 2016–2017 Sexual Misconduct and Interpersonal Safety Task Force.

In November 2022, six months after the completion of the memorial, student reports of sexual violence highlighted by the survivor advocacy organization Into Account prompted Hesston College to hire an outside firm to review the college’s policies, procedures, and practices related to Title IX and sexual violence.

Over the last few years, Mennonite Abuse Prevention (MAP) has spoken to multiple leaders and administrators at Hesston College about survivors’ wishes that the school name and acknowledge historical incidents of sexual abuse by school leaders. Most recently, after Hesston College initiated the external review of its Title IX work, MAP reached out to President Joseph Manickam to request a conversation about potential avenues for acknowledging and addressing reports of historical sexual misconduct at the college. MAP expressed a desire “to figure out what is reasonable and possible, and to see if we can find a way to bridge the gap between what survivors expect/need from the college (and Mennonite institutions in general) versus what the college is willing to do.” Manickam declined in November 2022 to talk to MAP until after the college reviewed the findings of the Cozen O’Connor report, which was released in April 2023. MAP followed up after the release of the report, but Manickam did not respond to multiple requests. A spokesperson for the college referred MAP back to the report and the accompanying information. Ahead of this publication, MAP reached out to board members with a draft of this report and a request for comment, which then prompted the board chair to request a June 2023 meeting, detailed below.

Using information gleaned over a number of years, MAP has begun documenting fragmented stories of historical sexual misconduct, the responses of leaders, and some of the past and ongoing impacts at Hesston College. The following accounts were compiled with assistance from survivors and community members and through research in historical publications and the college archives. While each story is situated in a particular decade, each also includes efforts by survivors or others affected to seek accountability and acknowledgment over many years.

Survivors do not want their injuries to be trivialized or ridiculed, and they do not want to be blamed for them. They do not want to be dismissed as overly emotional or told to “get over it.” They want their communities to recognize and respect their suffering and to acknowledge the seriousness of the harm they have endured. As individuals they want the people who form their moral communities to hear them, to believe them, to recognize that they have been hurt, and to offer help and support. As a group, they want the larger public to recognize that survivors are everywhere and that sexual violence is a major public health problem, not a private misfortune.

— Judith L. Herman, Truth and Repair: How Trauma Survivors Envision Justice

1930: A foundational problem

As previously documented by MAP, Daniel “D.H.” Bender, the founding president of Hesston College, confessed in a written statement in 1930 to “fornication with” (rape of) his teenage daughter some ten years earlier. While Bender’s and subsequent accounts implied a single event “during a Kansas thunderstorm,” the Mennonite Board of Education executive committee concluded that it was more than a single event and had continued for some time. They made it clear that they had “authentic data” substantiating Bender’s “gross sin.”

The abuse surfaced during a revival meeting in 1930, when the pastor of Hesston Mennonite Church asked Bender’s then 27-year-old daughter Ruth, who was a teacher of French and Latin at Hesston College, to confess any sins. The pastor, Maurice “M.A.” Yoder, would subsequently make Ruth’s confession public knowledge. Esther Good, an instructor at the college, wrote to a friend later in 1930, “since [Bender] could be restored only by making a public confession, the matter really did have to become public. How we wish it could have been fixed up privately.”

In August 1930, the Missouri-Kansas conference of the Mennonite Church removed Bender’s ministerial credentials. Three days later the Hesston Mennonite Church congregation met on campus in the morning to excommunicate Bender, returning in the afternoon to hear his confession and reaccept him as a member. When the church bishops met with Ruth, they concluded that because of her youth and because her father had taken full responsibility, she would not be asked to make a statement of confession. Nevertheless, on the same day her father was excommunicated and reaccepted, they asked her to stand before the congregation to “acknowledge her participation.”

The Mennonite Board of Education executive committee, along with the Hesston College board and faculty, were of a common mind that Ruth should continue to teach. M.A. Yoder, however, expressed his opinion that they should “quietly take Ruth out” to preserve the school’s “prestige” within the local community. It had become apparent that “our little town is stirred to the depth” and some of the “immediate constituency” had threatened to withdraw their support as long as Ruth remained on the faculty. Ruth’s colleague, Esther Good, also noted, “people around said they would not send their children [to the school] if she taught.” Ruth was dismissed from the Hesston faculty and left town, later embarking on a career in deaf education for which she is honored by Case Western Reserve University. Ruth never married, retiring to Goshen, Indiana, where she died in 1998. Dr. Ruth Bender’s 1927 Hesston College diploma, as a member of the last class granted bachelor’s degrees in that era, was found by MAP rolled up on a shelf in the college’s basement archives.

Ruth Bender's 1927 diploma from Hesston College and Bible School

College leaders wrote a letter to constituents in September 1930, saying: “We have briefly written these official facts for your first-hand information, so that you will understand any rumors you may hear.” A 1979 letter from Anabaptist historian John Oyer to academic dean Jim Mininger seems to indicate that Mininger was collecting information on the events of 1930, with Oyer commenting, “The entire incident would be an excellent exercise in the use of oral evidence, except that one should not really make much public again.” Mininger confirmed to MAP in 2023 that he had done “some minor investigation of the Bender story.”

The August 27, 1930 issue of Mennonite Weekly Review contained one mention of “the resignation of President Bender.” The September 18, 1930 issue of the Gospel Herald of the Mennonite Church contained three brief mentions of Bender’s “moral lapse” and resignation. The official 50th anniversary college history — ​​A Pillar of Cloud: the Story of Hesston College, 1909–1959, by Mary Miller — did not mention the story. The next reference MAP was able to find in Hesston College or Mennonite church publications is from 2009 in A School on the Prairie: A Centennial History of Hesston College, 1909–2009, by John Sharp. An article published that same year on the college’s website honored “the Founders Quartet” with no mention of Bender’s history of sexual abuse. Bender’s bio was deleted from the page shortly before this publication, leaving only three men, but the remaining text still references the quartet, “appearing to indicate a fast but uncareful modification.”

In 2022, a group of Hesston College students asked that Bender’s portrait be removed from the college’s Administration Building but were reportedly told no, “due to it being part of ‘Hesston’s history.’” In 2023, after substantial public pressure, the college announced that it had removed Bender’s portrait and would replace it with a plaque explaining why it did so.

1950s: Professor of music

MAP has received multiple reports that Lowell Byler, former professor of music at Hesston College, sexually assaulted and abused children and young women over many years. The reported abuse spans six decades, beginning during his time at Hesston College in the late 1950s, when he reportedly began abusing an elementary-aged girl, and continuing through 2017, when at the age of 87 he reportedly assaulted a 16-year-old girl.

In 2017, MAP received a report from a family member of a woman, now deceased, who said that Lowell Byler had sexually abused the woman as a child. According to the woman’s family member, the woman first met Byler in Hesston, Kansas in the early 1950s when Byler gave her voice lessons as an elementary school student, and it was during that time that he reportedly began sexually abusing her. Then in the late 1950s, when she was a teenager, she attended a local evangelistic meeting led by Myron Augsburger and went forward to confess that she had sinned with Lowell Byler. The woman told her family member that she was then called to the office of the Hesston College president, Roy Roth, where he, Myron Augsburger, and a third man questioned her.

MAP found reference to only one series of evangelistic meetings led by Myron Augsburger in Kansas in the 1950s, from March 27 to April 12, 1959, in Hutchinson.

Lowell Byler then left Hesston College after the 1958–1959 school year and moved to Millsaps College, in Jackson, Mississippi, where Lowell’s brother Leland Byler had joined the music department that same year. Lowell Byler taught at Millsaps from 1959 to 1963 and then returned to Hesston College under President Tilman Smith, again teaching music there from 1963 to 1973. Multiple documents show a plan for Lowell and his wife Miriam Byler to take a sabbatical for the 1973–74 school year, reportedly in DallasTexas. But the 1973 school year instead saw the Bylers moving to Eastern Mennonite College, where Myron Augsburger was then president.

Eastern Mennonite College reported in 1974 that Byler would not be returning, and Hesston College documentation shows that they were expecting Byler to return for the 1975–76 school year. Instead, Byler continued at Eastern Mennonite for two more years before resigning amid some controversy apparently related to the process by which he was brought into his department.

Byler went on to teach briefly at three more colleges — Sterling College (Sterling, Kansas), 1979–1982; Livingston University (Livingston, Alabama), 1985–1986; and Tougaloo College (Jackson, Mississippi), 1986–1987 — before apparently working as a used car salesman at the age of 60.

In 2012, under President Howard Keim, Hesston College planned a homecoming event to honor Byler and other past music faculty members. The family member of the woman who said Byler abused her reportedly spoke to college leaders about Byler’s history of sexual abuse, and the college subsequently uninvited Byler.

President Keim drafted an internal guide for college representatives responding to questions about the college’s decision to uninvite Byler. The first talking point, drafted in July 2012, instructed representatives to explain that “plans have changed,” with the option of adding, “due to concerns raised by members of our constituency and the health of the Bylers.” Two weeks later, a second document drafted by President Keim included two additional talking points, noting that college representatives should “choose response based on the level of the question.” The scripted responses included statements such as, “We recently became aware of concerns that have been expressed,” “Listen to the story, learn what took place, express regret,” and “Report any such conversations to the President.”

In 2017, at the age of 87, Lowell Byler reportedly assaulted a 16-year-old girl, and he was subsequently required to sign a limited access agreement in order to continue attending Harrisonburg Mennonite Church in Harrisonburg, Virginia. Church leaders told MAP that per church policy, the limited access agreement that was signed by Byler had been shredded after Byler’s death in 2018, but they provided MAP with an unsigned copy of the agreement for publication.

1990s: Professor of music

In 1991, Hesston College board member Dr. Carolyn Heggen learned from multiple former male students that Professor of Music David Rhodes had sexually assaulted them while on choir tours. Heggen, a Mennonite psychotherapist and the author of Sexual Abuse in Christian Homes and Churches, told MAP in 2023 that she presented this information to the board and to President Kirk Alliman at a meeting in 1991. Heggen reported to MAP that Alliman assured the board that Rhodes was being treated by a Mennonite therapist who said Rhodes was safe to continue in his roles with students at the college. During a break in the meeting, Heggen contacted the local therapist, who said he had told President Alliman no such thing. Heggen reports that when she confronted Alliman with this information after the board meeting resumed, Alliman became angry and aggressive. MAP reached out to Alliman ahead of this publication but did not receive a response.

Later in 1991, Heggen resigned from the Hesston College board of directors, stating: “I can imagine no issue which might arise during my tenure as a board member on which I would be more experienced or qualified to speak. If my concerns and counsel are disregarded on this matter [of sexual abuse], I have little expectation that they would be seriously considered on other issues.”

About six months later, Hesston College announced the resignation of David Rhodes in Mennonite Weekly Review. Rhodes was praised by the academic dean, Jim Mininger, who would soon serve as interim president for the 1992–93 school year. Rhodes continued to arrange trips for Hesston College through his R&R Travel company, but in 1994 the Hesston College board of directors issued a directive to the administration forbidding any travel arrangements or meetings that put Rhodes in contact with Hesston College students. Rhodes continued to take area high school choirs on international concert trips in the coming years, and in 2002 he was part of a Bethel College-sponsored European tour that offered college credit.

After leaving Hesston College in 1995, Jim Mininger, the former academic dean and interim president, next served as president of Lithuania Christian College (later LCC International University) from 1995 to 2008, where he hired David Rhodes as fine arts coordinator from 2002 to 2008.

In 2012, David Rhodes, like Lowell Byler above, was scheduled to be part of Hesston College’s planned homecoming celebration to honor past music faculty. After uninviting Byler in August, the college apparently decided in September not to feature Rhodes. President Keim’s internal talking points drafted in conjunction with this decision were similar to those regarding Byler, referring to the sexual abuse of students by saying, “We are aware of issues around Dave’s relationships during the time he served as a faculty member.” Although Rhodes was not honored at the homecoming, he was permitted to attend the events without any apparent restrictions. Rhodes died in 2022.

1993: Sexual misconduct task force

In 1993, a year after David Rhodes resigned, Hesston College interim president Jim Mininger formed the Sexual Misconduct Policy Task Force “to work towards an institutional policy with regard to sexual misconduct on the part of faculty and or staff. … Our current lack of such a policy leaves us rather vulnerable.”

This appears to be the first attempt to create such a policy at Hesston College. As documented by MAP, the early 1990s saw a number of North American Mennonite leaders sanctioned for sexual misconduct as well as some lawsuits against Mennonite institutions.

Notes from the work of the task force show that Professor Dwight Roth, who the college would later identify as having had “inappropriate sexual contact” with a student in the 1970s (see below), was appointed as a member of the task force. The group was instructed to coordinate with Dean of Students Hubert Brown, who would resign in 1995 because of his abuse of Mennonite college students in the 1990s (see below). Student Life was at that time working on a similar document for students.

The work of the task force resulted in the Hesston College Policy Statement on Sexual Misconduct that included definitions of sexual harassment, sexual misconduct, and sexual assault, laid out a procedure for handling reports of sexual misconduct, and ended with a note that, “In accordance with legal guidelines, reports that a sexual harassment incident has occurred will be posted on campus in a public place.” The policy states: “A summary of the offense, the resolution agreement, and any disciplinary actions will become a permanent part of the accused person’s employment file. Future employers may be notified of the offense as a part of the reference process if it is deemed by the President that the new employment situation could put other persons at risk.” The Hesston College Policy Statement on Sexual Harassment, which appears to be a slightly revised version of the previous document, was adopted by the board of directors in 1994.

1990s: Dean of students

In October 1995, Hesston College President Loren Swartzendruber announced that Hubert Brown, the dean of students, had resigned for personal reasons. A month later, Mennonite Weekly Review reported that two Kansas-based Mennonite conferences had suspended Brown’s ministerial credentials “due to acts of clergy sexual misconduct,” and the Gospel Herald soon reported similar information.

When The Mennonite followed up later in December 1995, Swartzendruber acknowledged that Brown had resigned after the college received information about allegations of sexual misconduct, but stated, “None of the allegations pertains to students or employees of the college.” MAP reached out to Swartzendruber ahead of this publication but did not receive a response.

In early 1996, despite his recent discipline for sexual misconduct, Hubert Brown was announced as a featured speaker at Bethel College, in Newton, Kansas, by the Multicultural Student Organization. Shortly after that, in an article in the Mennonite Reporter that was reprinted in The Mennonite, a victim of Brown spoke out about his experience of sexual assault by Brown in 1994 after first meeting Brown as a Mennonite high school student in 1990. The conference ministers acknowledged that they had learned of at least two others who reported abuse by Brown during their investigation.

Although I agree with their findings, I wish more would be done toward accountability. … The reason I’m speaking out now is [because] healing is far from over. Not only for myself, the other [alleged] victims and Hubert Brown, but for all the people Hubert was accountable to. This is a betrayal of trust of his position of pastor. Letting people know there’s a problem is an important step toward Hubert’s accountability.

— a victim of Hubert Brown, speaking in 1996

In 2020, MAP was contacted by another man who says Brown sexually assaulted him in 1994 on the Bethel College campus where he was a student. The man said he had first met Brown at a Mennonite conference when he was 16, remembering, “[Brown] was a bit of a rock star in the Mennonite world.”

2016: Sexual misconduct task force

In 2016, the Hesston College Board of Directors approved the formation of a task force “to help the college establish policies and procedures to prevent and address all forms of sexual misconduct and to create a culture that seeks to support and empower victims.” President Howard Keim, who stepped down later that year, stated, “It is our desire to create a new and better culture that seeks to dismantle sexual misconduct. We recognize that our own history and that of the Mennonite Church is not flawless in this regard.”

Speaking to MAP in 2023, Keim, who no longer represents the college, reflected: “I, along with the Administrative Council and the Board, believed that we needed clearer and stronger policies in place to respond to situations such as those you reference in [this] report. At a deeper level, we believed that we needed to create a safe space for victims to come forward and for the college to understand the systemic factors that contribute to incidents or patterns of sexual abuse.”

At the end of 2016, the college introduced the Sexual Misconduct and Interpersonal Safety Task Force, which was led by facilitator Dr. Jeanette Harder and included four external members and three Hesston College faculty and staff members, none of whom still work at the college.

The Task Force Final Report and Recommendations were completed in 2017 and presented to the board of directors and the new president, Joseph Manickam. Regarding historical reports of sexual abuse, the task force noted:

Sadly, hearing from alumni and reading the HR files indicate that [Hesston College] has not always responded appropriately to victims nor have they always held offenders accountable, so our recommendations also call for mourning and healing of the past.

Unfortunately, [Hesston College] has a history of boundary crossings and sexual misconduct. They have not always had the policies and practices in place to keep its community members safe, and even when victims have spoken out, [Hesston College] has not always responded appropriately.

Recommendations from the task force included installing a physical memorial, removing names and portraits, and publicly naming offenders:

[W]e propose that [Hesston College] establish a physical memorial on campus to provide an ever-present symbol that acknowledges that people in the [college] community have been hurt by [sexual misconduct], that [the college] sometimes fell short of responding appropriately, and that [Hesston College] promises to keep working to improve in this area. … A public dedication of this memorial would be an opportunity for [the college] to express its regret of harms done, and its commitment to prevent [sexual misconduct] and promote interpersonal safety.

An individual who has been credibly accused of sexual misconduct, regardless of his/her inclusion on the embargo list, should not have his or her name on a building or picture or portrait displayed on campus. If a picture or portrait needs to be removed, a statement should be posted in its place naming the reason.

Morally and ethically, [Hesston College] may choose to publicly name an offender and may report concerns about an individual (student or employee) to another institution; they may wish to seek legal counsel to determine risk level. It would be useful if an organization like Mennonite Education Association would host a list of individuals who are known to be offenders so as to reduce the likelihood of continued harm and wrongdoing.

press release quoted President Manickam as saying the college planned to begin implementation of all major areas of recommendation by mid-2018 and complete the majority by the end of 2018. At the end of 2019, the college announced that it had made significant progress on the implementation of the task force recommendations:

The college is also working to establish consistent and transparent policies and standards around information sharing in situations of misconduct. In addition, the college is working with a local artist to create a physical memorial to be completed by fall 2020 that acknowledges broken relationships resulting from institutional shortcomings and errors in judgment, and serving as a vow to do better as a community.

The press release also invited individuals to report any past incidents of misconduct that occurred on campus to Human Resources Director Monica Miller through the anonymous online reporting form on the college’s website.

In 2021, Miller emailed faculty and staff regarding work being done on a “memorial that creates a physical acknowledgement of broken relationships and missteps in Hesston College’s history and space for our community to interact in thoughtful ways, as individuals or small groups, to build relationships and communication.”

As noted above, in 2022 students requested the removal of the portrait of the founding president, D.H. Bender, who was known to have abused his daughter. The college initially refused, but then later removed the portrait after substantial public pressure.

1970s and today: Professor of sociology

In 2021, six months after HR Director Miller emailed faculty and staff regarding the memorial recommended by the 2016 sexual misconduct task force, a Hesston College alum reported to the college that she had been groomed and then taken advantage of sexually by her former professor, Dwight Roth, beginning on her graduation day in 1977.

All that happened began with a foundation of trust and then involved some degree of grooming that made me feel chosen, special, wanted by someone I looked up to, at a time when I was struggling and vulnerable. The central point is really that I was unable to give full consent given this relational power dynamic. Until he made the first move, I had no idea that he was seeing me through sexual eyes, or what he had been doing with the purpose of getting me into bed with him. … I would describe the offense as abusing his position and his power to gain access to my body and my self, for his own sexual and ego gratification.

— Hesston College alum to HR Director Miller, in 2022

Miller sought permission from the woman to have another former professor and friend of Roth’s speak to him about it. According to the woman and documentation reviewed by MAP, Roth confirmed the sexual contact with his student, but insisted it was consensual and that he had been in love with her. Roth and his wife then accused the woman of “elder abuse” for sharing her account of what had happened, and questioned her mental health. The college followed up with a letter to Roth outlining the allegations, and he reportedly responded in writing, claiming the sexual contact was consensual and denying any power dynamics at play.

In the process of reporting her experience to the college, the woman learned that the college had recently received another report about Roth. A professor with knowledge of the situation reportedly told the woman in a phone call of the recent “similar disclosure,” but Miller later told the woman that it was “not a similar experience.” When the woman asked for her contact information to be shared with the other person who came forward, Miller refused, saying that the other person had previously said they didn’t want to take further action.

When the woman asked Miller whether the college would somehow share with the community that there was a credible allegation against Roth, Miller reportedly said in a phone call that the college had received legal counsel that this would put them at risk for defamation of character, which could lead to a costly lawsuit that would be damaging to the institution, and that enough time had passed that it would be impossible to prove misconduct. When the woman asked if she could write her story (not necessarily naming Roth) to be shared with the faculty and staff, Miller declined this request as well. The college offered instead to privately ban Roth from campus and to generally publicize various means by which people are able to report any past violations.

The woman wrote a final email to Miller and President Manickam in April 2022, reiterating her disappointment and basic requests:

Again, it brings to light the very natural instinct to attend to the survival of the institution over attending to and taking responsibility for the broader impact on the beloved community (especially on the vulnerable, usually women) which might lead to some deeper learning and systemic change. I imagine that again it felt like there wasn’t really time to do this. I say, take the time. Put a stop to the monument and do the work. Discern next steps in a true Anabaptist manner. If it’s serious enough to consult with an attorney, then it’s serious enough to consult with experts in the moral arena, maybe women theologians, like at AMBS or others who have grappled deeply with issues of patriarchy, sexual misconduct, and the abuse of power. I am ultimately not as concerned about what the final decision is, as I am with how you arrived at that decision, and I want the determination to come with an explanation that is more thorough and ethically sound than simply it being a matter of avoiding litigation. From the start I have felt called to “break the silence” and in the process have had to face a lot of my own fears (and many other feelings, fundamentally rooted in survival), so maybe it’s not that surprising that you are having to do the same. The reality is that breaking the silence needs to happen on so many levels, and we will undoubtedly keep encountering fear and denial as we do this work. It will require courage and moral fortitude.

President Manickam did not acknowledge the woman’s email or respond in any way. Two months later, HR Director Miller reiterated the college’s refusal to take any of the requested actions, this time justifying the decision with the reported statements from other schools: “I was able to connect with four other Mennonite-affiliated colleges/universities, which included [Eastern Mennonite University]. Each institution stated that they would not publicly name a current or former employee, nor have they done so with the exception of an arrest that occurred during employment at an institution. In that situation the institution publicly named a current employee after the arrest was made public via local news outlets.” Miller resigned from her position at Hesston College in August 2022 and did not respond to MAP’s request for comment ahead of this publication.

In an unpublished statement that the communications department made to Anabaptist World in December 2022, the college said it “is not in a position to publish the name of an individual based on accusations, including a former employee who is accused of committing these acts 45 years ago.” It is unclear what question Miller posed to the other institutions she consulted, but the statement the college provided to Anabaptist World indicates that the college was categorizing the information it had obtained regarding Dwight Roth as an accusation rather than an admission.

In 2015, Hesston College had recognized Dwight Roth among a group of former faculty given honorary emeritus status on Homecoming weekend, and the college continued to feature him in their list of emeritus faculty.

2022: Student reports and outside review

In September 2022, survivor advocacy organization Into Account published information highlighting student reports of sexual violence and mishandled responses at Hesston College, including reports that the school may have violated Title IX, the federal law prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sex or gender in education.

Local news coverage in November further detailed student and advocate concerns and reported that Hesston College had initiated an outside review. In a subsequent letter to the Hesston community, President Manickam responded to some of the news coverage and said, “The recommendations from this outside review … will help us ensure we are doing everything we can to support and protect our community.”

Shortly after that, a group of Hesston students published a letter with a list of demands of the Hesston College administration, and in December, a group of students walked out of a Friday morning chapel service “in a show of protest against the college’s response to sexual violence on campus and to show support of victims who have been affected.”

Del Hershberger, vice president of admissions, speaking on behalf of Hesston College, told Anabaptist World that the college took the students’ demands seriously. “None of us can predict what we will learn and what decisions will be made, but we believe a healthy process will lead us to healthy solutions, including revisiting prior decisions.”

In April 2023, Cozen O’Connor submitted their report to college leaders, and as promised to the students who had demanded it, the college made the full report and accompanying information publicly available on its website. The report focused primarily on Title IX-related cases from the last five years, finding that the college “generally satisfied the minimum regulatory requirements of Title IX,” but going on to detail that, in practice, the college:

  • failed to consistently respond to and assess reports of sexual and gender-based harassment and violence;
  • failed to provide complainants with consistent care, access to supportive measures, and information about procedural rights in response to a report; and
  • improperly utilized informal resolutions to resolve concerns about sexual and gender-based harassment and violence.

Informal resolutions and restorative justice (RJ)

The Cozen O’ Connor report, in a section titled “Use of Informal Resolutions,” states:

[I]n several instances of reported dating violence and sexual assault, the College sought to resolve the matter using informal or restorative resolution options. While this is not prohibited by the current Title IX Regulations, there is a prescriptive process by which informal resolution must be structured and documented. As evidenced by the examples described in this section, those processes were not followed by the College.

Howard Zehr, “widely known as ‘the grandfather of restorative justice,’” and Director Emeritus of the Zehr Institute for Restorative Justice at Eastern Mennonite University was recently quoted as saying:

RJ is widely recognized as having come out of the Mennonite community. Mennonites often seem to think they have a natural inclination toward RJ, but I’m not so sure. In my experience, it’s been dangerous to think that. It has kept us from implementing programs and safeguards, because we think we are already doing it.

In her 2023 book, Truth and Repair: How Trauma Survivors Envision Justice, Judith Herman offers some critiques of Zehr’s past work as well as certain applications of restorative justice, particularly in cases of sexual violence:

At the grassroots level, the RJ movement has unfortunately reproduced many of the same deficiencies as the traditional justice system with respect to victims’ rights. … The concerns of victims have often been insufficiently represented, and the interests of victims may be subordinated to an ideological agenda just as easily as they are in the conventional system. In this instance, the agenda would be one of reconciliation and forgiveness rather than one of punishment. Howard Zehr, a major theorist of the movement, admits that he initially viewed victims as a nuisance: “In my earlier work with prisoner defendants, I had not understood the perspectives of victims. Indeed, I did not want to, for they served primarily as interference in the process of finding ‘justice’ for the offender.”

Zehr’s later work shows an evolution toward greater consideration for victims. He now asserts, “Victims must be key stakeholders rather than footnotes in the justice process.” This is an important advance. But unfortunately, the community called to bear witness to crimes of sexual violence in restorative justice practices is just as much a part of the patriarchal culture that sees victims as “footnotes” as any twelve jurors called upon to deliver a verdict within our conventional retributive system.

The Cozen O’Connor report briefly referenced a number of historical cases of abuse at Hesston College, noting, “Numerous community members shared their belief that the College has not fully and adequately addressed these reported [historical] incidents of abuse or missteps in the College’s prior responses.”

After reviewing the 2016 Sexual Misconduct Task Force report and the college’s implementation of those recommendations, Cozen O’Connor concluded that “the actions taken by the College to implement the Task Force recommendations – or their communications about their actions – were not sufficient to remedy or resolve continuing concerns about historical allegations of abuse.”

Responses by college leaders

In their letter accompanying the April release of the Cozen O’Connor report and recommendations, President Manickam and Board Chair Ken G. Kabira said, “On behalf of the Board of Directors, we commit the college to taking these steps without reservation.”

During the morning plenary session of the May 19, 2023 meeting of the Hesston College board, Kabira opened a discussion of the Cozen O’Connor report by saying, “We cannot change the past, but we need to be informed by the past, so that we can do better, and we will do better.”

When Kabira asked President Manickam to report on his plan for executing the recommendations in the Cozen O’Connor report, which had been released more than a month earlier, Manickam first said the college is “in a holding pattern” waiting on the release of new federal Title IX legislation [first scheduled for the end of May, but now to be released in October 2023]. Manickam outlined a plan that he said included naming “probably as soon as next week” the leader of a new task force, and with that person, choosing “probably within the next two to three weeks” an external Title IX partner firm to guide the college in implementing recommendations from the report. Manickam indicated that he and the task force leader, along with the selected external firm, would assemble the group and identify their tasks. “The plan is, by the time our new [2023–2024] academic year opens up, … we can now start working on implementation of new policies, practices, and procedures.”

Kabira followed up by saying that the executive committee of the board had requested of the president that there be board presence on the new task force, noting that board member Paula Kuhns had agreed to serve in that role. Kuhns commented that Cozen O’Connor did a good job of looking at things from a survivor’s point of view and said that the board wants an external firm to also look at things from that perspective.

On May 31, 2023, Manickam announced in a letter to the college community that he had appointed Whitney Douglas, Disability Services and Title IX Coordinator, as the chair of “a new working group that will be charged with managing the implementation of Cozen O’Connor’s recommendations.”

After first making a draft of this report available to board members, MAP reached out to Kabira, Kuhns, and Manickam ahead of this publication to offer a chance to comment. Kabira then requested a conversation with MAP that included Kuhns and Manickam. In a lengthy discussion in early June 2023 that covered the broad themes of this report, MAP asked questions about the previous work of the 2016–2017 task force, the Community Healing Circle, the college’s previous responses related to reports of abuse by Dwight Roth, and the plans and possibilities going forward.

Regarding the previous task force report and recommendations given to President Manickam and the college in 2017, Manickam said, “I understand that there’s elements in that 2017 report that seem incomplete. And for that, I accept responsibility.” Kabira, who said he was a new member when the report was presented to the board, acknowledged that the college clearly had not implemented the work of the previous task force. “We just kind of thought [it would] happen organically, [and it would] be on somebody’s to do list. Well, it didn’t happen.” Despite the 2019 press release that announced, “The college is also working to establish consistent and transparent policies and standards around information sharing in situations of misconduct,” the college still does not seem to have such a policy in place. In reference to addressing past allegations like those against Dwight Roth, Kabira said, “What’s the institutional response to that? My honest answer is, ‘We don’t know.’ I wish I could say, ‘By February 2024, we’re going to launch this new group to come up with a way in which these past historical accusations are going to be handled.’”

In response to MAP’s question of whether HR Director Miller’s response to allegations of abuse by Dwight Roth was the correct response according to the implementation of the 2017 task force’s recommendations, or whether the response was mishandled and would be part of the promised “prompt restorative outreach to those affected by the college’s insufficient actions,” the leaders did not answer directly. Kuhns said, “Are we going back and addressing the past? I would hope so, but I don’t know what this group is going to be that I’m going to be a representative on. I don’t know who’s on it. … I think our charge is both for the students in the last few years, … and I think that it would also be going back further. … I don’t know that, and I’m not in charge of that committee. So I’m not sure exactly.”

When asked if the college would ever name and acknowledge that an employee had abused a student, like in the case of Dwight Roth, Manickam said, “Maybe. Quite possibly, yes.” MAP then referred back to the college’s 2022 response detailed above, and Manickam responded, “We’re an evolving institution. I think in many ways, we’re learning as we go. And part of that is trying to stay open, and trying to say, ‘Okay, we did it this way. Okay, maybe that’ll work. Let’s try something different. Is there another way of approaching this?’”

In response to MAP’s question, “What does the memorial mean, then? Is that just a generic, ‘Mistakes were made? We apologize if people were harmed?’” Manickam said, “It is for survivors, but it’s also for someone like me. … I too have feelings. I too have been hurt. … It’s also for me as president. It’s also there for our vice presidents. Because we can’t forget this stuff, we don’t forget this stuff. And this stuff hurts us at a deep level.”

In talking about the makeup of the recently announced task force or working group, Kabira said, “Most likely the team is going to consist of faculty representatives and staff representatives.” When asked if the college might have any survivors in the group, Manickam laughed and said, “Well, I’m sure there will be. … I would think so.”

All three college leaders emphasized that they intend to do things differently and better and that the college is committed to systemic changes and transparency. Kabira closed the conversation by saying, “There’s a chance we will fail. But it won’t be for lack of trying.”

Conclusion

The first precept of survivors’ justice is the desire for community acknowledgment that a wrong has been done. This makes intuitive sense. If secrecy and denial are the tyrant’s first line of defense, then public truth telling must be the first act of a survivor’s resistance, and recognizing the survivor’s claim to justice must be the moral community’s first act of solidarity.

— Judith L. Herman, Truth and Repair: How Trauma Survivors Envision Justice

MAP embraces the tension in survivors’ unresolved grief and anger, their demands for truth-telling and justice, and their hope that Anabaptist institutions could do better. The survivors who come to MAP almost all yearn for their beloved communities and institutions to do well, to live out their stated visions of justice and peace.

The 2016 college task force report, the 2023 Cozen O’Connor report, and statements by current and former college leaders have all identified Hesston College’s history of mishandling reports of sexual violence and responding poorly to survivors. The college has committed to listening to and believing survivors, yet survivors continue to experience harm through the college’s unresponsiveness, minimization of their stories, appeals to institutional liability and protection, and refusals to publicly name and acknowledge past abuses and mistakes.

MAP looks to examples of Anabaptist and other private institutions responding well — in ways that are experienced as generally good by those most vulnerable and directly affected — through efforts such as revisiting earlier poor responses to reports, acting on allegations of abuse from decades prior, and choosing transparency and outside accountability in their processes.

In 2019, President Sara Wenger Shenk and Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary publicly acknowledged and apologized for mishandling a 2009 student report of sexual assault. The student wrote of her experience working with the president and the seminary to review their earlier harmful response:

Success is possible. You wouldn’t know it from the headlines […], but institutions can nondefensively admit failure. Leaders of religious and academic institutions can, without being experts in sexual violence themselves, engage survivors respectfully, appropriately, and without endangering or retraumatizing them. Survivors’ preferences and choices regarding institutional processes of review, accountability, and restitution can be accommodated. Those individuals who mishandle a survivor’s case can take responsibility for doing so. The failures of these individual personnel can be owned by the institution as manifestations of the institution’s broader failures as a collective.

— Hilary Jerome Scarsella, in 2019 (Note: Scarsella would later mark a break in her relationship with AMBS after expressing concerns regarding the institution’s next president.)

In 2019, Harvard University stripped a retired professor of his emeritus status and the president apologized to victims after an outside report and subsequent review detailed multiple incidents of historical sexual misconduct, some of which had been reported decades before but responded to poorly.

In 2020, the presidents of both Conrad Grebel University and Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary published statements naming John D. Rempel and announcing “historical sexual misconduct” that had occurred in the 1970s and ’80s.

In 2020, Lookout Mountain Presbyterian Church responded to allegations of sexual misconduct by adults who had been in leadership positions at the church decades earlier. Church leaders “chose to be radically transparent about what happened and how it was being handled. … [They] did not try to cover it up or emphasize that the events happened decades ago. The church provided counseling for those affected, hired independent investigators and took responsibility.”

In asking for a conversation with Hesston College leaders, MAP hoped to propose an opportunity for institutional courage. MAP remains open to exploring a model for listening to survivors, looking squarely at and acknowledging the past, and leading the way for Anabaptist institutions. In exchange for organizations providing access to records, actively encouraging relevant parties to speak up, and instructing legal counsel to help share as much information as possible, MAP offers to independently research, document, and publish histories of sexual violence and survivor experiences so that they can be publicly named and acknowledged.

Examples of this kind of model include the 2014–2015 John Howard Yoder inquiry and report, in which Mennonite Church USA commissioned historian Rachel Waltner Goossen to research and report on Yoder’s sexual abuses and the church’s responses, and the 2021 Mennonite Central Committee invitation for historians to research and document the institution’s historical connections to the Nazi regime.

MCC US Executive Director Ann Graber Hershberger stated, “Truth-seeking and truth-telling are essential parts of … peacebuilding,” acknowledging it as complex work that requires concerted, ongoing effort. Nearly 100 years ago, in 1926, just a few years prior to revelations of abuse by President Bender, the Hesston College Journal reported the results of an extemporaneous speaking contest at the school:

Ruth Bender was awarded first place on her philosophical talk on “Forgetting.” We learned that we forget things either because we never really knew or else we really did not want to remember.

Hesston College’s Community Healing Circle sits completed but undedicated. The memorial, first envisioned and presented to President Manickam and the board of directors in 2017, was finally completed in 2022 and scheduled for dedication that fall. In November 2022, in response to MAP’s inquiry, the college said, “at this time, we have not scheduled the dedication for the Community Healing Circle.” A month later, Anabaptist World reported: “In a statement, the college said the monument ‘was not addressing specific situations’ but ‘speaks to our institutional values’ and ‘creates a space for our community to interact in thoughtful ways.’ A dedication is planned.”

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