Commencement Celebrations

Commencement weekend at Concordia University St. Paul is always a time of great celebration, and 2016 will be no exception. Some 1,377 students are expected to graduate this year, a number that will eclipse last year’s record 1,263. The increasing number of graduates is due to growing enrollments in traditional undergraduate, non-traditional undergraduate, and graduate programs, as well as improving rates of persistence to graduation across all programs. The numbers translate more importantly into individual lives changed and success stories written. Many of our graduates achieve their degree-seeking aspirations amidst extremely challenging circumstances, and we are proud of each and every one.

In addition to celebrating the class of 2016, we will also honor the lifetime accomplishments of a number of our alumni. Rev. David Andrus (’81) will be awarded the Doctor of Letters degree and serve as commencement speaker at Friday evening’s ceremony. Despite having lost his eyesight at the age of 11, Pastor Andrus successfully earned a Bachelor of Arts degree at Concordia, went on to earn Master of Divinity and Master of Sacred Theology degrees at Concordia Seminary, and has served effectively in both blind and sighted ministries for 30 years.

Alumnus and alumna Vern (’55, ’57) and Betty Lorenz (’58) Gundermann will be awarded the Aeterna Moliri award in recognition for their life-long efforts as “builders for eternity.” Vern served as pastor and Betty as pastor’s wife in a number of wonderful congregations, including for two decades Beautiful Savior Lutheran Church here in the Twin Cities. They are perhaps giving the greatest witness of their lives, however, as Vern now lives out his days with ALS.

Alumnus Dan Farrise (’08) will serve as speaker for the Saturday morning ceremony. Mr. Farrise earned his Bachelor of Arts degree as a working adult, just as did most of those who will receive their diplomas at this ceremony. He attributes much of his career and personal success to his Concordia experience, and I know his compelling story will inspire the class of “16.

At Saturday afternoon’s ceremony, nationally-known historian Dr. Sara Evans will serve as commencement speaker. The University is also awarding Dr. Evans the honorary Doctor of Letters degree. Dr. Evans is a graduate of Duke University (BA ’66, MA ’68) and earned a PhD from the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill in 1976. She spoke on our campus earlier this academic year and made a big impression on our campus community. I am pleased that she accepted our invitation to speak to the graduates from the Graduate School programs.

With apologies to Edmund Pola and George Wyle, in academia commencement is truly “the most wonderful time of the year!” I look forward to celebrating with all of you.

Tom Ries

Easter Triumph, Easter Joy


In the words of an early Christian hymn translated by Robert Campbell we sing:

Easter triumph, Easter joy!

This alone can sin destroy;

From sin’s power, Lord, set us free,

Newborn souls in you to be. Alleluia!

Nothing more significant has happened in all of world history than the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. His death was the atoning sacrifice for our sins. His resurrection is the assurance that the sacrifice was sufficient payment for our sins. We are free in Christ from the burden of guilt to live lives dedicated to him. This is the Gospel, the good news from God.

I realize that in our secular culture, this kind of language is often considered obsolete or, at best, one expression of personal spirituality among many options. Nevertheless there is no substitute for this Gospel in providing comfort, strength, peace, and purpose.

In this Holy Week 2016, which will culminate again with the Festival of the Resurrection, I am thinking about Concordia almnus and alumna Vern (’55, ‘57) and Betty (’58) Gundermann. As Vern is living out his final days on this earth through his journey with ALS, he has been enormously generous in sharing his experience with family and friends. Through this extraordinary time, he has hope, and wrote recently: “I can do that because of the suffering, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus, my Savior.” It is the kind of hope generated by the good news of the Gospel, for which there is no substitute.

Concordia University will give thanks to God for Vern and Betty at commencement on May 6, when they will be awarded the Aeterna Moliri award.  They have touched my life, and the lives of legions of others through the ministry they share. Their lives in ministry are a direct result of Easter triumph, Easter joy.

Grace and peace.

Tom Ries

Nursing Program Receives High Marks


Just this morning I sat in on an exit meeting to receive the summary report of a site-visit team from the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education. Three experienced nursing professionals were sent to our campus by CCNE to review our new Bachelor of Science in Nursing program.

To say they were effusive in their praise is an understatement.

Never have I heard a visitation team give such unqualified endorsement to a new academic program. Singled out for her exemplary leadership was our BSN program director Josie Christian. The team noted that she is among the most thorough, professional, and service –oriented directors they have ever met. Josie came to Concordia a little over two years ago to help us take this program from dream to reality. We are the beneficiaries of her extremely hard work and deep dedication.

Among the specific observations from the visitation team were the fact that the mission and vision of the nursing program is well coordinated with the university’s mission, vision and strategic plan, and the curriculum is so well designed that it is already getting positive attention from respected nursing professionals in the Twin Cities area.

Surrounding Josie is a faculty already getting high marks from students. Professor Jodi Zastrow and Dr. Heather Moulzolf have played key roles not only in serving the first five cohorts of students but also in the accreditation process. Jeanne Burger, Amy Matthys, Dr. Iris Cornell, and Angela Booher round out the faculty. Amazingly, sixty-eight students are already enrolled in the program, even while we are in candidate status for its accreditation. The visitation team was impressed with the unusually high number of students who took time from their busy schedules to meet with them, and equally impressed with their positive comments about the program and the faculty. A number of experienced and successful nurses, who have been in the profession for many years but are now pursuing their BSN degrees, commented that they are seeing a whole new dimension to their vocation as nurses thanks to the program and the faculty.

The visitation team also had very positive things to say about our personnel in admissions, academic advising, academic support, financial aid, career counseling, and information technology. Josie herself dropped a note to me and Eric Lamott the day before the exit interview, sharing her deep appreciation for the responsiveness of multiple offices on campus, who have helped her as she has led this accreditation process. She is the first to say it is a team effort.

I was also deeply moved when the visitation team explicitly commented on the vitality of our university as a Christian institution. All three members of the team  are affiliated with faith-based institutions, and the team lead remarked that the sense of “doing Christ’s work” in this place is palpable.

The visitation team will file a report with the CCNE Board, which in turn will make the decision to give the commission’s accreditation to our program. A decision will be reached later this year. If, as we expect, it will be a positive decision, accreditation will be retroactive to the beginning of the program, so that all graduates will have the credential of earning their degrees in a fully accredited program.

For decades many of us have had the dream of bringing nursing education to our university. Not only has the BSN program made this dream a reality, its recognized quality sets the stage for expanded offerings in nursing in the future. So exciting!

Grace and peace to you.


Tom Ries

A Culture of change


In my last President’s Post, I noted that our greatest asset is our people (Growth in Wages: Another Measure of Progress, 12/08/2015). Close on the heels of that wonderful asset, in my opinion, is the healthy culture of change that exists at our university. This culture goes back at least as far as President Poehler, who led the university through a big post-war growth boom, including campus expansion and diversification of academic programs.  Subsequent decades saw changes in delivery systems with the introduction of cohort and online models, the diversification of the student body, and the expansion of graduate-level programming. I’ve been part of several of those cycles of change, and have always marveled how fluidly faculty and staff have adapted to change over the decades.

The biggest difference between the Poehler years and our current era is that from the end of World War II to the beginning of the 1970s, all of U.S. higher education was in a growth mode. Federal and state funding for both public and private higher education was generous, levels of tuition and financial aid were in good balance, denominational funding for church-related schools like ours was substantial, students were plentiful, and there were fewer competitors providing services in the higher education marketplace.

Things are different today.  Much of traditional higher education is contracting, while for-profit universities expand. Competition for students continues to ratchet up.  Direct federal, state. and denominational funding is gone.  Tuition and related costs are high, and sources of financial aid have not kept pace.  Change is needed to cope with these systemic changes.  Fortunately for us, we change well.  In the January 2016 issue of University Business Mr. Bob Shea, Senior Fellow of Finance and Campus Management for the National Association of Colleges and University Business Officers (NACUBO) is quoted as saying “There is a lot of innovation going on internal and external to higher education. Those that innovate will do well. Those that want to maintain the status quo will face challenges moving forward.”  Mark CSP in the column of “those that innovate . . . well.”

Two very good reasons to be optimistic about the future of Concordia University are its people and its culture of change. Yet, we are conscious of our responsibility to steward the heritage of the liberal arts and the many strong traditions of academe.  I so enjoyed listening to Dr. Paul Hillmer’s Poehler Lecture last spring, in which he prudently reminded us of the importance of respecting our foundations even as we make needed changes. The core of Paul’s address has been reprinted in the current edition of the journal Missio Apostolica.

In the midst of the need to change, we are reminded that “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever” (Hebrews 13:8).  As we move into the future, let us do our best and put our trust in him who changes not.

Grace and peace to you.

Tom Ries

Growth in Wages: Another Measure of Progress




In January 2016, every eligible Concordia University St. Paul employee will receive a 3% increase in pay. This is fifth consecutive annual 3% pay increase. Compounded over the five-year period, wages have increased at a 15.9% cumulative rate.

In comparison, during the same period the Consumer Price Index (CPI) has increased by an 8.5% cumulative rate.1 So, wage growth at Concordia St. Paul is nearly double the growth rate of the price index. Moreover, for the most recently recorded four-year period – academic years 2012, 2013, 2014, and 2015 – the College and University Professional Association (CUPA) reported an average annual increase of 2.2% for tenured and tenure-track faculty at private colleges and universities, and 1.8% at public institutions.2 So, average annual wage growth at our university has been some 33% higher than average annual wage growth at all private and public institutions of higher education in the United States over the most recent four-year period..

When I first came to Concordia as president five years ago I expressed the hope that Concordia University St. Paul would become more of a destination for faculty and staff, than a stopover on the way to bigger and better things. In reality, that vision had already been emerging prior to my advent as president. In a previous President’s Post (Leadership for the Long Run, 08/03/2015) I noted just a few of the striking examples of leadership longevity which exist already at the university. Many faculty and staff leaders have spent the majority of their careers with Concordia St. Paul. Improving our levels of compensation is one way we hope to continue to strengthen that kind of long-term tenure.

Yet, we also rejoice when one of our own finds a can’t-turn-it-down opportunity. This week we bade farewell to Anthony Ross, who leaves Concordia after 15 years as Bookstore Manager. I hired Anthony when I was Concordia’s chief financial officer, and he did a superb job of taking our bookstore operation to a new level. He, in turn, told me a few days ago that his time at Concordia was “life-changing,” and that “it is a hard place to leave.” Anthony moves on to oversee the combined bookstore operation at three of the largest two-year colleges in Minnesota. I know he will do an excellent job.

Grace and peace to you.

Tom Ries




Re-accreditation in 2018

Accreditation, technically a voluntary process, is a means by which colleges and universities demonstrate that their degree programs meet minimum standards. Institutions of higher education in the United States are accredited by one of six regional accrediting bodies. The Higher Learning Commission (HLC) is the body which administers accreditation for Concordia University St. Paul. Concordia’s professional programs, such as accounting, education, and physical therapy, have their own accrediting agencies and processes. But the HLC oversees our comprehensive, overall accreditation. Accreditation by the HLC is issued for a ten-year period and ours was last approved in 2008.

Though there are many pieces to the process, fundamentally two are most important: an institutional self-study and a site visit by a peer review team. Recently it was announced that our site visit will be conducted on April 16 and 17, 2018. The site visit team, made up of educators from other colleges and universities, will be on campus those two days. By that time they will have digested our self-study document and will be with us for a first-hand look.

The year 2018 seems a long way off, but there is much to do. In fact, our preparation began already over a year ago. In June of last year, Dr. Miriam Luebke was named Associate Vice-President of Assessment and Accreditation and began organizing our re-accreditation efforts. Miriam is supported directly in this effort by Dr. Marilyn Reineck, Vice President for Academic Affairs, who, happily for us, recently helped lead Concordia University Chicago through its own re-accreditation process.

The vitally important self-study centers in the preparation of a 35,000-word document, with loads of supporting material. The document is organized around five Criteria for Accreditation. Early this summer Miriam and Marilyn identified teams to work on each of the criteria. The teams with their team leaders are:

  • Mission                                                                                                                        Rev. Dr. Tom Ries
  • Integrity: Ethical and Responsible Conduct                                                       Dr. Michael Walcheski
  • Teaching and Learning: Quality, Resources, and Support                              Dr. Thomas Saylor
  • Teaching and Learning: Evaluation and Improvement                                   Dr. Jean Rock
  • Resources, Planning, and Institutional Effectiveness                                      Rev. Dr. Michael Dorner

An additional team focused on federal compliance issues is led by Dr. Eric LaMott. Each team is made up of six to ten faculty and staff members. Just this past August, all full-time faculty and many staff leaders met in small groups to begin identifying the evidence that demonstrates how Concordia University St. Paul meets the core components of each of the five criteria. Since September the teams have been working independently to expand upon that evidence, and begin drafting the various sections of the self-study document. Miriam calls the team leaders regularly to make sure we are on track.  This process will consume the better part of the next 12 months.

We have a great deal to be proud of at Concordia University and much reason for optimism about the future. In addition, we have the capacity to be aspirational about what we might want to accomplish in the future. The re-accreditation process gives us the chance to review these blessings and demonstrate them to others. As with all important initiatives, please keep it in your prayers and participate whenever possible.

Grace and peace to you.


Tom Ries





Student Success = Concordia University Success


In virtually every respect, Student success is synonymous with Concordia University success. We consider ourselves successful as a university only to the degree that our students succeed. Three of the university’s four strategic goals, for example, are directed at student success . . . enrolling in college, graduating from college, and transitioning to employment or graduate school after college. We measure our success as a university by the success of our students in these core areas.

But we track other measures of student success as well. One that just came across my desk today was reported by Jeanie Peck, Director of Financial Aid: student loan default rates. The U. S. Department of Education (DOE) is interested in the degree to which graduates from colleges and universities around the country are repaying their Stafford Federal Loans. (The federal guaranteed student loan program, authorized by congress in 1965, was renamed for Senator Robert Stafford in 1988.)  The government is interested in seeing that these loans are repaid and, to a certain extent, holds each college and university accountable for the performance of its graduates on repaying their loans. The aggregate success rate of graduates in repaying their loans is measured in the “default rate” of graduates from each institution of higher education.  That is, the DOE reports aggregate rates of those not repaying, or defaulting on their loans.

The DOE recently released default rates for the 2012-13 academic year. The national default rate for all colleges and universities participating in the loan program is 11.8%. The default rate of graduates from all participating Minnesota colleges and universities is 9.8%. The rate for graduates from all four-year private colleges and universities nationally is 6.3%. The Concordia University St. Paul default rate was a comparably very favorable 4.4%. Moreover, this rate is a significant improvement over the past three years for our university.

Jeanie comments: “This data suggests that although students at CSP often use Stafford Federal Loans for educational purposes, they are successfully repaying or making other satisfactory arrangements for amounts borrowed. Furthermore, the default rate at CSP is less than half at the state level, and 62.8% less than the national level. This is truly wonderful news!”

Naturally we are asking ourselves why our graduates are doing so well, especially given the fact that average family incomes of Concordia students are lower than most of the enrolled students at other Minnesota privates. One might surmise that our affordability strategies, including the tuition reset implemented four year ago, are part of the answer. We have also stepped up financial education for students, although we would like to see more students take advantage of such opportunities.  Our seasoned financial aid and admissions staff certainly is helping students understand the implications of borrowing to attend college.  Likely, improvements in retention and persistence to graduation are contributing to this positive outcome on default rates.  And the fact that students are finding jobs after graduation may also be a factor. As we analyze the potential contributing factors, we are happy for our students that the vast majority are successfully managing student loan debt.

Many thanks to all faculty, staff, student peer tutors, and others who are contributing to the growing trajectory of student success at Concordia, however we measure it.  Grace and peace to you!

Tom Ries





Enrollment Up, Space Expanding

Fall 2015 preliminary enrollment figures are in and we are again blessed with a very positive picture.  Total enrollment is currently at 4,400, up from 4,057 last fall.  Enrollment in all three categories is up.  Though there may be slight adjustments to these figures in the next week or so, university Director of Institutional Research Beth Peter reported last week that traditional undergraduate enrollment is at 1,423 (1395 in 2014), undergraduate cohort enrollment is at 1,160 (1,025 in 2014), and graduate enrollment is at 1,817 (1,637 in 2014).

These consistent increases in enrollment (2015 is the fourth straight year of a new record enrollment) are certainly due to a number of factors including a growing reputation for academic quality being spread by word of mouth and social media, new academic programs being successfully brought to the marketplace, a well-coordinated marketing plan, and a pricing strategy that is attractive to the consumer.

Speaking of quality, I recently spoke with a 2015 graduate who is now in dental school at the University of Minnesota.  She told me that her undergraduate preparation at Concordia was superb for her chosen field of study, and even intimated that Dr. Leeanne Bakke had prepared her so well, she felt that some of her foundational courses in the dental school were going to be “a breeze.”  I guess I shouldn’t say that too loudly, lest the U of M School of Dentistry be led to toughen up the course of studies!  But it is one example of the hundreds of times I have heard Concordia graduates express that their education here was an excellent preparation for their next steps in life.

As the enrollment has grown, so has our need for additional space, especially for classrooms and offices.  For this reason, we have decided to rent space in the Central Midway Building across Interstate 94.  We have signed a five-year lease on the fifth floor of the building and will move some faculty and staff offices as well as classes to that location starting with the spring semester.  This addition to our “space inventory” not only helps us meet our needs now, but gives us some time to think through other, longer-term options for space in the future.


It continues to be an exciting time to be at Concordia University St. Paul!

Tom Ries


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