Leadership for the Long Run

Last week Derek Flynn of our enrollment consultant Ruffalo Noel Levitz gave his annual review of enrollment trends and projections at Concordia University St. Paul. His presentation was inspiring, as the projections for fall 2015 enrollment are very strong, and the strategies and tactics we as a university have put into place continue to look promising.

I was even more inspired, however, as I looked around the room at the tremendous group of professionals gathered for the presentation. Concordia has been blessed with extraordinary leaders, many of whom have been with the University for a long time. Almost our entire Admissions staff was there.  Our amazing admissions effort is led by Associate Vice President Kristin Vogel and Associate Vice President Kim Craig, who between the two of them have over two decades of service to Concordia. Kristin told me that we have had a relationship with Ruffalo Noel Levitz (formerly Noel-Levitz) for eight years now and a good number of our admissions counselors have been with us for at least that long.

Members of our Academic Advising team, led by long-time Concordia staff member Gretchen Walther, and Financial Aid Office, led by veteran Jeanne Peck were at the table. Both departments have many professionals who have served Concordia for decades. The Office of Registrar, led by another long-time Concordia leader Toni Squires, also has decades of experience within it.  Also present, were Deans David Lumpp, Don Helmstetter, Kevin Hall, and Mike Walcheski, who among the four of them have – dare I say – nearly a century of service to Concordia.  Student Life, led by Associate Vice President Jason Rahn, also has a combined century of service among its staff members.  The Executive Leadership Team, most of whom also sat in that room, consists of Cheryl Chatman, Michael Dorner, Mark Hill, Eric LaMott, Marilyn Reineck, and yours truly. Not only has this team combined for its own century of service, but four of the six have left and returned to Concordia at one time or another. I can tell you from personal experience, it’s a place worth coming back to!

In addition to the departments gathered to hear the enrollment report that day, there are many, many other departments with long-tenured leadership, including Operations led by Jim Orchard, Human Resources led by Mary Arnold, Athletics led by Tom Rubbelke, Conference and Events Services led by Jen Sila, Information Technology led by Jonathan Breitbarth, and virtually all of our academic departments.  At the same time, there has been room for movement, both within the university itself, and onward to other organizations. Within the last year, a number of key individuals have taken on new leadership responsibilities within the university and others have received opportunities at other universities and organizations that they simply could not turn down. While long-tenured leadership is more common than turnover here at Concordia, we get enough fresh input from new faculty and staff to keep us from getting stale.

I recently read an article in the Harvard Business Review entitled The Most Innovative Companies Have Long Term Leadership. We have certainly been blessed with that kind of leadership here. In the coming years, I look forward to helping a new generation of leaders prepare to take this great University to its next level of achievement.

Grace and peace to you.

Tom Ries





Magnificent Year – Thanks Be To God

Fiscal Year 2014-15 is in the books, and what it year it was.  Enrollment grew to over 4,000 students, with both record numbers of new students and much-improved rates of retention of current students.  A number of new academic programs received final approval by accreditors, including most recently the Doctor of Education (EDD) program.  Student success was evident in many ways, including the the largest number of graduates in university history, successful transitions to jobs and graduate school, new and continuing internship opportunities, and academic recognition for another large number of our student athletes.  Last, but not least, financial results were again very solid, improving our capacity to serve students effectively in the years to come.

Contributing to these financial results were the great strides made in our university advancement effort.  Led by Vice President for University Advancement Mark Hill, the advancement office successfully broadened the donor base by engaging over 500 new first-time donors and reengaging thousands of continuing and previous donors.  A number of significant major gifts helped make 2014-15 the best year in gifts and grants in the last decade.  Mark, and the entire staff, would be the first to say  “Thanks be to God” for these extraordinary blessings.  But I want to publicly say “thank you” to the advancement staff of Leslie Erickson, Matt Hewitt, Analisa Koehler, Derek Lavalier, Ryan Marshall, Tootie Martin,  Amanda Och, Rhonda Palmersheim, and Staci Poole, as well as to our thousands of faithful supporters.

This support from our donors, as well as our excellent operating results, are making it possible for us to complete some important capital improvement projects.  The  Buetow Auditorium, built in and virtually untouched since 1971, will receive a $1 million makeover beginning this summer, and the 23-year old Gangelhoff Center will also get a facelift.  New lockers and carpeting will bring our football locker room into the 21st century, important improvements to science labs and equipment are being made, and we will continue our ongoing effort to upgrade classrooms.  I’m excited to say that none of these improvements will be made with borrowed dollars, and university indebtedness continues to shrink year-by-year.

Last year the Board of Regents endorsed a list of $32.5 million in funding priorities for the five-years of our strategic plan, and well over 30% of them have already been funded.  I’ll have an updated report of our progress on these priorities later this summer.

Many thanks to all of you for contributing to the success of our students.  When students succeed the University succeeds for, after all, our mission is . . . to prepare students.   Grace and peace to you!

Tom Ries

Memorable Commencement


Commencement is a high point for every university and Concordia St. Paul is no exception. This year nearly 6,000 guests came to campus to honor the graduates in the three ceremonies, one Friday night and two on Saturday. A record 1,263 degrees were granted by the University, awarded to 280 traditional undergraduates, 301 non-traditional undergraduates, and 682 graduate students.

Over the years, many people have commented to me that Concordia St. Paul’s commencement exercises are among the most impressive they have ever attended. This does not happen by accident. The Conference and Events Services staff are the key leaders in making these events the outstanding happenings that they are, but contributions from the Athletic department, Custodial Services, Sodexo Food Services, Security, Operations and Maintenance, Grounds, the Registrar’s Office, the Bookstore, Student Life, Academic Affairs, the President’s Office, University Ministry, the Music Department, and the Academic Events Committee are all necessary to achieve the high level of excellence we enjoy in commencement. Add to that the many faculty members – full-time, adjunct, and retired – who attend one or often all three of the exercises, 94 volunteers from across the campus who helped out this year, and the student musicians who give of their time over the weekend, and you have a small army of people making commencement the special time that it is.

2015 was memorable for many reasons, not the least of which was a gorgeous weekend, the largest attendance and number of graduates ever, and outstanding commencement addresses by our three main speakers – Rev. Tom Evans, CSP alum, retiring Regent, and Pastor of Emanuel Lutheran Church, Inver Grove Heights, MN, Ms. Elizabeth Ries, co-host of Twin Cities Live on KSTP Channel 5, and U. S. Congressman Eric Paulsen. Moreover, the spirit of the graduating classes was palpably high, with an abundance of selfies, hugs, and high fives being spread throughout and beyond the Gangelhoff Center.

I wish to offer my personal thanks to everyone in the University community who make commencement so very special at CSP.




10 Years of Choral Excellence


For the past 10 years Concordia University and the American Choral Directors Association of Minnesota have jointly produced the annual High School Choral Arts Finale.  High School choirs from around the state submit auditions to a jury of experienced choral directors, who select six top choirs.  Selections are done through a “blind test,” meaning that the jurists are not aware to which high school choir they are listening.  Over the years large schools, small schools, urban and small-town schools, mixed gender and same gender choral groups, have all been part of the final selections.  The six finalists receive travel assistance to come to the Twin Cities on a Sunday in April, the help and direction of a high-profile clinician to hone their own pieces and prepare several pieces to be performed by all the choirs en masse, and a gift to their choral program.  The choirs gather at noon on Sunday, rehearse all afternoon, and then travel to Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis for the evening performance.

The 10th festival was held on Sunday, April 19th.  My wife and I have had the opportunity of attending four of the ten, and it is truly a “knock-your-choral-socks-off” evening.  Per Dr. David Mennicke, this year’s festival featured the largest mass choir of all.  To hear nearly five-hundred voices, including the six choirs and Concordia’s own Christus Chorus perform at this festival is breathtaking.  This year’s clinician was Dr. Janet Galván, Director of Choral Activities at Ithaca College (New York), and performances were offered to a near-capacity crowd.

This festival would not be possible without the magnanimous support of benefactors David and Sandy Frauenshuh, whose original vision and financial support have made the festival what it has been for these 10 years . . . the premier high school choral event in Minnesota.  The festival would also not be possible without the indefatigable effort of Dr. David Mennicke, chair of Concordia’s Department of Music and director of the Christus Chorus.  The effort it takes on his part to make it happen is staggering, but he recently told me that he finds the entire process energizing.

On behalf of Concordia University, I want to publicly thank the Frauenshuhs, Dr. Mennicke, and the ACDA of Minnesota for producing this magnificent event.

Faithful in our Calling to Witness and to Love

One passage of Scripture that has fascinated me since childhood is Acts 5:41: “The apostles left the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name.” After spending a night in jail for the crime of preaching the good news about Jesus, Peter and the other apostles were hauled into court, charged never again to speak publicly about these things, and severely beaten with whips. They left the court, amazingly, rejoicing at the privilege of suffering for the name of Jesus.

A general state of persecution of Christians persisted for two centuries after Jesus ascended into heaven. Fifteen of the first 30 popes were martyred or died in exile, and untold numbers of lesser known Christians suffered similar fates.

Then something radical happened. Around AD 313, Christianity became the favored, rather than persecuted religion. Alas, not many centuries after this blessed relief, the organized church became the persecutor instead of the persecuted. Horror of horrors, the church itself extinguished dissenting voices, often by extraordinarily cruel means, as humanity slogged through the Middle Ages.

Reformation and Enlightenment brought a return to sanity as the realization dawned again that the Gospel was a message of hope and deliverance, not of retribution for failure to obey. But then the cycle repeated, as once again the delivered became the powerful, and power again adopted new rounds of bias and persecution.

This unfortunate cycle seems regularly to repeat itself. Today in much of the western world, Christians are just beginning to suffer for their faith. As in the days of the Apostles, courts and legislative bodies are revising religious liberties, trampling long-cherished beliefs, and restricting when and where the name of Jesus can be honored. The emerging realities are presenting increasing complications for the church in general and institutions of higher education which seek to honor Christ and welcome all, in particular.

I ask myself: Am I as eager as the early apostles to rejoice at the privilege of suffering for the name? I pray that I am. Gandhi often famously said: “There are many causes that I am prepared to die for, but no cause that I am prepared to kill for.” I know that I would rather die than kill for my Christian convictions.  I do wonder what price God may ask me to pay.  Whether in favor or out of favor, our calling is to witness to the forgiveness of sins won by Christ and to love, even when unloved. May God strengthen us to be faithful in this calling.

Tom Ries

Remembering Our Shared Past


The Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod (LCMS) has produced a new video to be released later this year, entitled The First Rosa. It is the story of Rosa J. Young, a pioneer in the education of Black children in the State of Alabama. Rosa Young, born in 1890 in Rosebud, Alabama, was the fourth of 10 children born to the Rev. and Mrs. Grant and Nancy Young. With encouragement from her parents, Rosa enrolled in Payne University in Selma, Alabama, graduated as valedictorian in 1909, and became a teacher. She taught at various schools, until in 1912 she returned to Rosebud to found the Rosebud Literary and Industrial School. It was the first of 30 schools which Rosa Young would have a hand in founding, including one which later grew into Concordia College Alabama.

Rosa’s connection to the Lutheran church came about when the Rosebud school fell on hard times financially. She wrote to Booker T. Washington, founder of Tuskegee Institute, seeking help. Washington’s personal secretary, Emmett Scott, replied that Tuskegee was unable to offer financial assistance, but suggested she contact the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod. Eventually the Synod, along with several other Lutheran denominations working together in the Synodical Conference, sent Pastor Nils Bakke to Rosebud. Together Rosa Young and Pastor Bakke made education the cornerstone of their strategy to bring the Gospel of Jesus Christ to Alabama. Rosa Young died in 1971, but not before being recognized with an honorary doctorate from Concordia Theological Seminary in 1961.

You may view a trailer to this inspiring new video at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C692GCE8IeY

During this month of February, Black History month, we are mindful of our shared past. Another milestone in our past will be observed on March 8, the 50th anniversary of the march from Selma to Montgomery, led by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  The historic crossing of the Edmund Pettis Bridge will be remembered at an event called Crossing Bridges: Selma to Minnesota, 1965 – 2015. Concordia University, along with a number of other faith-based organizations and congregations, is helping sponsor this event, which will begin at 2:00 p.m. at the State Capitol, continue with a symbolic march across the Cedar Street Bridge, and culminate with a program at Central Presbyterian Church to remember this important day in Civil Rights history.

You may learn more about the Crossing Bridges event at  http://crossingbridgesmn.com/

As we remember our shared past, with both its heartache and exhilaration, we are thankful for the multicultural, urban environment in which we as a university are privileged to pursue our mission to prepare students for thoughtful and informed living, dedicated service to God and humanity, and the enlightened care of God’s creation, all within the context of the Christian Gospel.

Grace and peace to you.

Tom Ries



Spring Enrollment, Student Success, and the Power of Prayer

The numbers are in and 2015 spring semester enrollment is at a robust 4,040 students, virtually the same as the record fall number. The rate of retention from fall to spring has been among the highest in school history, a positive indication that the University is making progress on both its strategic Goal 1: Grow Enrollment and Goal 2: Increase Retention and Persistence to Graduation.

The strong showing on retention is remarkable for several reasons. First, the University is far more diverse today in terms of academic programs, levels of student preparedness, the makeup of race, religion, nationality, and ethnicity, and the forms of academic program delivery than ever before.  This vast diversity calls for a diversity of approaches to meet student needs, efforts which translate into retaining students.  Second the strong showing indicates that Concordia is a university that has become especially adept at meeting the needs of a diverse student body.  This quality will prove to be enormously valuable as college students in the future are going to continue to be an extremely diverse population.

Student retention must be a grass roots effort, where everyone from the persons who clean the restrooms, serve food in the student life center, and patrol the parking lots, to academic, personal, and spiritual advisors, to coaches and athletic trainers, to faculty teaching in classrooms and online, and yes, even to presidents, see their role as helping students succeed. When retention works at Concordia St. Paul it is a clear indication of the living out of our promise to students “empowers you to discover and engage your purpose for life, career, and service.” I’ve observed this promise being lived out in many ways, by many people at Concordia, and it is gratifying to begin to see the results in terms of lives being changed and student success being attained.

Thanks to the fact that we are achieving success in enrollment and growth in net assets, we are in the enviable position of having the resources to execute on several aspirations we have as a university. For example, nursing education has become a reality for the first time at our university with the enrollment of the first cohorts in our RN to BSN program. Future plans call for expanding nursing education offerings on both the undergraduate and graduate levels. The effort to achieve final approval for our EDD program is well underway and we are praying and working toward accreditation for that capstone program in our academic offerings in Education. Though numbers have fallen nationally in students preparing for vocations in the church, we are determined to break that trend, and are investing heavily in new faculty positions in theology and ministry and a scholarship program called the Twelve Disciples Scholarship, offering full tuition to highly qualified men and women interested in preparing for a vocation in the church.

As I write these lines I am just coming off a visit to the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington DC, an invitation extended to me and my wife Susie through our good friends David and Sandy Frauenshuh. Though we at Concordia are already well aware of the power of prayer, it was inspiring to join with thousands of other Americans and citizens from 130 countries to pray for the welfare of our world and our nation, and to express our trust in God. Many times we heard the words of Proverbs 3:5-6 cited at this two-day event: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him and he will direct your path.”

Many thanks to all of you as we pray and work together

Tom Ries

Wonderful Year with the Saint John’s Bible



Throughout the current academic year we have been blessed with the Saint John’s Bible on our campus. Two of the seven volumes have been on display in the Library Technology Center since August, and throughout the month of February all seven volumes will be here. It’s probably a misstatement to say the volumes have been “on display.” They have, in fact, been actively used and enjoyed, touched and experienced in many ways. Each Monday, one of the volumes is transported to the chapel for “illumination Monday,” and a member of our faculty or staff talks about both the scriptural message appointed for the day and the rich artwork which illustrates it.

Among the highlights of having the SJB on the campus have been the wonderful speakers, who have contributed to the theological and artistic aspects of the project. On February 12th we have the very special opportunity to hear from Mr. Donald Jackson, the visionary behind the Saint John’s Bible and among the foremost calligraphers in the world. He will be speaking in the Buetow Auditorium at 7:00 p.m. I encourage you to arrive early, as we expect a full house! We are delighted that Mr. Jackson’s wife will be accompanying him as well.

I am extremely impressed with the way our campus community has embraced the Bible and incorporated it into the life of our community in many ways. Though many, many faculty, staff members, and students have found ways to lift up the Bible, special mention should be given to Kathy Haeg, Administrative Assistant to the Vice President for Academic Affairs, for her efforts to coordinate and encourage the many activities and uses of the Bible. We also again want to publicly thank Wartburg College, which loaned us the seven display cases we are using to house the volumes while they are on our campus. As you know, the theme of our academic year is The Word became Flesh. The Saint John’s Bible has certainly helped enrich that theme for us.

Grace and peace.

Tom Ries

Turning the Page

As we prepare to turn the page of the calendar to a new year, we have every reason for hope and optimism.  Early indications are that enrollment will remain very strong for the spring semester.  The financial position of the University for the first six months of the fiscal year is sound.  Qualified faculty and staff will once again benefit from a three-percent pay increase effective January 1st, the sixth such annual increase in a row.  A recently announced $500 thousand grant from a private foundation, paired with gifts from other donors, will enable us to make significant improvements in our laboratories and a number of classrooms.  Hundreds of new donors have stepped forward in just the last year, broadening our pool of Concordia supporters.  Our Strategic Planning Team has helped us identify the top priorities for major investments in the next five years.  What I especially like about this list is that it is both strategic and doable.  The areas for capital investment, which were led incidentally by the need to upgrade our laboratories, are specifically targeted at our tactical plans to achieve our strategic goals of growing enrollment, increasing persistence, improving transitions to jobs and graduate studies, and growing net assets.

Speaking of fund raising and capital investments, I am increasingly aware that prayer is the most powerful tool we can employ in the funding process.  Even before we had finalized our list of top priorities for investment, Vice President Mark Hill was made aware of the possibility of a gift from the aforementioned foundation.  It reminded me of the verse in Isaiah: “Before they call I will answer.”  Yet another need, repairs and improvements to our magnificent organ in the Buetow Auditorium, was just recently funded with a gift by two donors who had named Concordia in their estate plan decades ago, long before anyone knew we would have this need at this time.  Remarkably, the distribution was about a thousand dollars above the expected cost!  If you see a need for capital funds, I suggest you commit it to prayer.  I’ve got my own list going, but the more of us praying, the better!

Yet another reason for optimism is the progress we are making in university ministry.  I have not been this excited about CSP ministry for a long time.  Understandably, the focus is often on our Pastor, Tom Gundermann, and Ministry Associate, Shelly Schwalm, since in many respects they are the face of university ministry.  But hundreds and hundreds of students, faculty and staff are currently involved in university ministry in a meaningful way, and I have every confidence that more will be in the future.  In addition to the University’s strategic plan, Tom and Shelly have led us in the preparation a strategic plan for ministry.  It centers in four activities: Equipping, Welcoming, Caring, and Worshiping.  All of us as faculty and staff have a role to play in ministry, whether it is praying for and with students, exhibiting care for the personal needs of students, worshipping with students, or helping students discover and engage their own God-given gifts and talents.  I look forward to seeing what each and every one of our faculty and staff will do in the years ahead to give expression to the Christ is honored, all are welcome promise of our University.

Ultimately, of course, our reasons for hope and optimism are grounded in the magnificent news that The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.  We have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son of the Father, full of grace and truth.  Thank God for Christmas.  Thank God for Christ.  Thank God for the future.

Tom Ries



Leaders Needed

Every organization needs leaders. Concordia University has been blessed with an abundance of tremendous leaders. We recently celebrated the life and contributions of one extraordinary leader, Dr. Loma Meyer. She is but one of many figures who have led heroically throughout the last twelve decades.

God raises up leaders for his people. But it is also true that God works through people to identify and enlist leaders. I am hoping that we as a community will become more intentional in identifying, inspiring, and equipping future leaders for our University. Many are needed. Our University has key academic leadership positions as department chairs, associate deans, deans, chairs of key faculty committees and the senate, and, of course, the vice president for academic affairs. The University also has vital leadership positions in such academic support areas as admissions, financial aid, registration, career services, advising, student services, plant operations, and many others.  Developing leaders, empowering leaders, and doing some basic succession planning are all things an organization has to do.

In an effort to become more intentional in identifying and preparing leaders, I’ve appointed a Task Force for Leadership Development. This ad hoc group has a five-part charge:

  1. Review what is currently being done at our University to assimilate new faculty and staff into the Concordia culture and into their specific job responsibilities.
  2. Review what activities, programs, or events have been carried out in the past to contribute to the development of individuals as leaders.
  3. Identify the key leadership positions at our University, for which we should be developing future leaders and considering succession planning.
  4. Propose a system for leadership development, including tracks for academic leadership and academic support leadership, as well as professional development tracks for faculty and staff who may not aspire to leadership roles, but have the capacity to make a career out of their particular roles as faculty scholars or academic support professionals.
  5. Identify some specific internal leadership development activities and external leadership development opportunities which we may want to incorporate at Concordia.

I’m grateful to the six Concordia professionals who have accepted my invitation to serve on this Task Force. I asked them to serve based on the specific roles they fill at the University.

  • Ms. Mary Arnold, Director of Human Resources
  • Prof. Katie Fischer, Co-Chair of the Faculty Development Committee
  • Rev. Tom Gundermann, University Pastor
  • Dr. Don Helmstetter, Dean of the College of Education and Science
  • Mr. Matt Hewitt, President of the Concordia Staff Organization
  • Dr. Rob Krueger, Chair of the Department of Mathematics and Chair of the Faculty Senate

Please include this task force in your prayers, and offer any encouragement and insights you might wish to make into the important topic of leadership development.

Grace and peace.

Tom Ries