Wonderful Year with the Saint John’s Bible

book1

 

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

A Big Week for a Good Guy

 

This has been quite a week for our good friend and Vice President for Finance Dr. Michael Dorner.  Michael successfully defended his PhD Dissertation today, the topic of which was The Governance of Denominational Colleges and Universities in an Era of Declining Denominational Identity among Students.  A good number of his friends and colleges, and also his brother Frank who drove up from Chicago, filled the small conference room at the University of Minnesota to hear him share his findings.  This is the end of a very long journey to the PhD and we are excited to offer our heartiest congratulations to the newest doctor on our campus!

Tomorrow Michael will be honored by the Minneapolis/St. Paul Business Journal as CFO of the year.  The ceremony will be held at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Minneapolis.  Michael was nominated by one of his colleagues at Concordia, Dr. Bruce Corrie, and I was happy to add my name to the nomination.  Under Michael’s leadership, net assets of the University have grown by over 40%, our cash and debt positions have improved dramatically, and we consistently have financial audits with no adverse findings.  The University’s Department of Education Financial Responsibility Score has improved to a 2.9 out of a possible 3.0.  Michael and his staff have played an invaluable role in the success we are enjoying right now as an organization, and it is nice to see him (and through him, the staff) get this well-deserved recognition.

I first met Michael when things were not nearly so positive financially for the University.  He came to work at Concordia as a staff accountant in 1998, just as the CFO and most of the others on the accounting staff were exiting the building.  Even from his limited position on the accounting staff, he played a major role in helping hold things together during those difficult days.  When I became the Vice President for Finance myself in 1999, I looked around for a Controller, and found no one better qualified than Michael.  Happily, he was willing to take the job, and together he and I began to build a foundation for improved financial performance.  It should be noted that soon after becoming Controller Michael hired PaNhia Thor to replace himself on the accounting staff.  When Michael ascended to the office of Vice President in 2004, PaNhia became the Controller and she and he have been working together in those roles ever since.  We are very fortunate to have both of them here.

A system for financial accountability is indispensable to every college and university today, and ours is among the best in the country.  But that is not the only contribution Michael makes to Concordia.  he frequently serves as an adjunct faculty member, teaching courses in accounting and some other business-related subjects.  He is also an accomplished organist, who offers his talents regularly to a local congregation and occasionally on campus.  And as an ordained minister of the Gospel, he shares his talents as a spiritual leader in chapel and in other ways.

Congratulations to our friend and colleague for a very big week!

 

Two Griefs Observed

Recently Concordia University hosted a nationally known author, whose book has appeared on the New York Times best seller list. The topic of both the speech and the book was the author’s experience with the untimely death of her mother from cancer over two decades ago, and her personal journey to find relief, and peace of mind and heart from the agony of that loss. In seeking this relief, the speaker/author followed a path initially of degradation into self-destructive behaviors, and then personal resolve to complete an unaccompanied hike along the 1,100-mile Pacific Crest Trail. Ultimately the speaker purports to have found contentment in a mixture of personal accomplishment and polytheism, and in fact made the statement: “Nature is my god.”

I appreciate this author’s candor in telling the story of her journey through grief and loss. Every pastor has walked through this valley with individuals. In a number of cases, I as a pastor have witnessed similar radical rejection of faith of any kind, and the acting out of amoral and immoral lifestyles in the attempt to pursue relief from the pain of loss. Nevertheless, I was left grieving for this author. She has had no pastor to guide her in the dark valley and even these many years later continues to seek peace outside of the grace of the personal, living God, whom all may know in the face of Jesus the Christ.

Over three decades ago, I experienced the untimely death of my own mother from cancer. I well remember the pain of that loss. I was hoping she would survive long enough to meet my first child, who was scheduled to be born that very week. Alas, my mother died several days before the birth of my daughter. I and the other members of my immediate family were with her when she died. My father gently held her in the last moments of her life. The last thing she heard this side of heaven was his voice, asking: “Is Jesus calling you?” Indeed, he was.

Five days later, my first daughter was born. The birth occurred at 3:03 A.M., a moment I shall never forget. Driving home from the hospital later that morning, I stopped by the side of the road and wept openly. It was a strange mixture of tears. Tears of grief at the loss of the woman who gave birth to me and nurtured me throughout her life. Tears of thanksgiving for the woman whom I adore and who had given birth to our first child. Tears of immense joy at the child who was now God’s gift to us. This mixture of tears was assuaged and enhanced by the surpassing peace and hope found in Jesus Christ.

When observing these two experiences of grief, you and I are left with the obvious, ultimate question. Is true peace to be found in self-expression outside of Christ or immersion into Christ? That question was long ago answered for me. For others, the answer remains yet elusive.

Grace and peace to you.

Tom Ries

Many New Highs

The official census figures are in, and enrollment for the 2014-15 academic year has exceeded all expectations. My last President’s Post projected a total fall enrollment of between 3,900 and 4,000 students. Actual fall 2014 census is 4,057 students, with increases coming in all three categories of our business: traditional undergraduate, non-traditional undergraduate, and graduate. Our strategic goals for enrollment growth, adopted in 2013, are to achieve, by the year 2018, 1,500 students in traditional undergraduate programs, 1,000 in non-traditional undergraduate programs, and 2,500 in graduate programs. We have already exceeded the five-year goal for our non-traditional enrollment, which numbers 1,025 this fall, and are making excellent progress on the other two categories of students. Traditional undergraduates enrollment is at 1,385, and graduate enrollment is at 1,647.

A graph of our 30-year enrollment history shows steady upward movement for three decades, thanks to many factors, which include vastly expanded academic program offerings, openness and capacity to serve students from a wide variety of races and ethnicities, more robust opportunities for students to participate in athletics and the arts, a strong commitment to affordability in higher education, and an increasingly recognized reputation for quality instruction and academic support.

I’ve also noticed over the years I have been president, that Concordia is widely respected for its commitment to the Christian faith coupled with a passion to welcome individuals from all faith backgrounds to the university community. Many students – interestingly, both Christian and non-Christian – are attracted to the Christ is honored, all are welcome promise of our University. No doubt this climate is helping spur enrollment growth as well.

While 2014-15 is obviously off to a roaring start, a look back at 2013-14 shows a number of significant new highs:

  • Total spring semester enrollment of 3,652 was then a new record (now exceeded by fall 2014-15)
  • The University awarded over 1,000 degrees for the first time in any single academic year
  • The number of students living in on-campus housing was the highest in the last two decades
  • Financial performance was strongest of any single year in the University’s history, with an operating positive of nearly $4.0 million and growth in net assets of over $6.0 million

It all adds up to many new highs, for which we can be enormously grateful.

Grace and peace to you!

Tom Ries

 

Enrollment Up, Programs Approved . . . by the grace of God

Preliminary enrollment figures for the 2014-15 academic year are indicating a solid increase in enrollment over the previous year. As of yesterday, traditional undergraduate enrollment is at 1,379 students for fall semester, an increase of approximately 25 over last fall’s record. Cohort starts next week are expected to enroll 900 new students, compared with 800 last fall. Retention of previously enrolled students has been good. It all projects to a total fall enrollment of between 3,900 and 4,000 students, an overall increase of between eight and ten percent over last fall’s record start.

Two new academic programs were approved this summer. The Higher Learning Commission (HLC) issued a final approval letter for our Master of Science in Orthotics and Prosthetics (MSOP) on August 19. Last week the Commission on Accreditation of Physical Therapy Education (CAPTE) gave final approval to our Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) Program, which had been previously approved by the HLC. I do not have enrollment numbers on the MSOP program as yet, but learned today that the DPT program’s first class is fully subscribed at 30 students.

The journey toward DPT program approval will forever be part of the Concordia saga. Seven years ago, a then brand new Concordia Regent named Dr. Loren Leslie suggested that Concordia had the wherewithal to design and build a reputable DPT program. Dr. Leslie’s opinion was significant, since he himself is a board certified physiatrist and his career included service as Director of the Sister Kenny Rehabilitation Institute and a member of the faculty of the University of Minnesota Medical School. So the process of preparing for the program began.

Dr. Peter Rundquist was called to be the first Director of the DPT program and had the monumental task of leading the effort to prepare for the accreditation visits. Peter and Mr. Matthew Vraa, the first full-time faculty member, have worked extremely hard to set program standards, prepare course syllabi, establish clinical relationships with practitioners, design facilities, plan equipment purchases, and attend to scores of other details. It’s a good thing they did, because the accreditation process has been extremely rigorous, to say the least.

During the summer, in anticipation of the CAPTE team’s final visit, Peter asked volunteers to step forward as prayer partners, and over a dozen of us committed to praying over the process. I even penned a couple of prayers and sent them to the group. We wanted a process that would test our mettle, and we knew we were going to get one. The day before the scheduled visit, Peter sent an email to the prayer partners, quoting these encouraging words he had received from his aunt: “Do not fear the future; God is already there.”  We all felt prepared and guided by God.

But, the visiting team was tough. They were friendly, but fussy. They were encouraging, but exacting. They came with high expectations and they were sticking to them. Midway through the morning of the visit, Dr. Joel Schuessler pulled me aside in the hallway and said: “I just had my meeting with the CAPTE visitation team. You might want to ‘send one up’ (meaning, a prayer) because they are being very tough on us.” By 3:30 p.m. we were even considering the possibility that the team might not approve our program.

Then at around 5:00 p.m., as I sat in another meeting, someone slipped me a Post-it note: DPT approved! It was both an exhilarating and humbling moment, and I immediately thanked God.

The motto that has been adopted for out DPT program is this:

Follow in the footsteps of the greatest Healer the world has ever known.

That’s a beautiful invitation to aspiring physicians . . . and to the rest of us as well.

Tom Ries

A Rare Privilege

On Saturday, August 9th I had the privilege of speaking at the funeral of an old, dear friend, Earl Nolte. The service was held at St. Michael’s Lutheran Church, Bloomington, MN. Concordia alumna Jane (Kriel) Horn (`73) masterfully played the organ and led St. Michael’s choir and orchestra. Concordia alumnus and current faculty member Dr. Paul Hillmer (’90) sang a number of solos and also sang with the choir. Many Concordia alums were in attendance.

Born on a farm in rural Fairmont, Minnesota in 1924, Earl was baptized and confirmed at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in Fairmont, attended Fairmont Senior High School, and was active in his church and a Lutheran organization for young people known as the Walther League. After graduating from high school he was called to serve in the U. S. Army during World War II.

I got to know Earl in 1985, when I began serving as his pastor. Like many of his generation, Earl spoke little of his service record, until his later years when he was persuaded to share just enough of it to try to inspire young people with faith in Jesus Christ. He talked about being wounded on a landing beach in the South Pacific and incurring injuries which afflicted him the rest of his life, and how his faith had sustained him. What he had never told anyone outside the family, what I only learned at the funeral, was that in addition to being awarded the Purple Heart, the Silver Star, and many other military decorations, he was nominated several times for the Congressional Medal of Honor. Each time he declined the nomination, saying that the medals belonged to those who didn’t come home. Earl alone, of his closest friends in his outfit, made it off that beach alive. Concordia faculty member Dr. Thomas Saylor included an interview with Earl and Helen in his 2005 book Remembering the Good War: Minnesota’s Greatest Generation, but Dr. Saylor also discovered that Earl had kept a few of these details even from him.

After the war, Earl began a 47-year career with Centel Corporation, a regional telecommunications firm, first climbing poles as a utility man and eventually retiring as an executive. During that time he met and married a Lutheran school teacher, named Helen, and the couple had three daughters. His family was the most important thing to him this side of heaven, and he and Helen are blessed with many grandchildren and great-grandchildren. One granddaughter recently earned her MBA at Concordia. Another great-granddaughter was born just hours before Earl was called to heaven.

After he retired, Earl went “to work” full-time sharing the love of Jesus as a special assistant to the pastor. He called on members of the congregation and the community, visited the sick and shut-in, and was even asked by one person, who was not a member of our church, to conduct her funeral service. The last ten years of his life were difficult, crossed with many health problems, including the loss of much of his vision. He nevertheless held firm in his faith, asking us to read at his funeral these from Romans 8: “In all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.”

Thank you, Lord, for giving us the gift of Earl Louis Nolte.

Tom Ries

 

Enrollment Going Up

Enrollment3

Fall enrollment figures are beginning to firm up. Beth Peter, Director of Administrative Computing and Director of Institutional Research, recently reported traditional undergraduate headcount for fall 2014 at 1,275, up 16% from the same time last year, and a whopping 34% from the same time two years ago. Non-traditional undergraduate enrollments and graduate enrollments are also trending up. This is wonderful news, especially given the challenging environment, in which many universities and colleges are experiencing enrollment declines.

Retention of last year’s traditional freshmen and transfers looks to be flat or even slightly off compared to the previous year.  But because last year’s new student enrollment was so terrifically strong, returning students from last year along with healthy number of new incoming students are leading us to yet another record high in traditional enrollment.  Moreover, retention percentages for the last three years represent good progress from retention results a decade or more ago. Nevertheless, we still want to make better progress in the area of retention.

Beth and Renee Rerko, Director of Traditional Advising, have prepared a comprehensive report for me on students who are discontinuing.  I will be sharing details of their report in my President’s Report to the faculty and staff on August 18, and later with our Board of Regents and President’s Advisory Council. The quantitative data Beth and Renee are providing will help us improve our tactics for retention, and qualitative data from Renee and her staff will also be helpful. The advising staff knows the personal stories of every non-returning student, which is just what you would expect from a university that is responsive, relevant and real.

Please join me in praising and thanking God for the growth in enrollment that we are experiencing. While many faculty and staff have a hand in attracting new students, we want to especially thank our two superb leaders: Kim Craig, Associate Vice President for Cohort/Graduate Admission, and Kristin Vogel, Associate Vice President of Undergraduate Traditional Admission. We are fortunate to have both of them here.

Tom Ries

Taking Stock

It is important to periodically evaluate progress on our strategic plan. While we are entering the second year of our formal plan, which spans July 1, 2013 to June 30, 2018, it is appropriate to look back over the last three years to see what kind of momentum we are building. We track our progress on four specific goals.

Goal 1: Grow Enrollment. Over the past three academic years enrollment has grown from 2,800 students in the fall of 2011, to 3,652 in spring of 2014, or over 30%. This is outstanding progress toward our objective of increasing enrollment to 5,000 students by 2018. Moreover, these results are being achieved in the context of flat or declining enrollments at many colleges and universities in Minnesota, and alarming declines in other regions of the country. We have a great deal for which to be thankful in the area of enrollment, but it is a matter that requires our constant attention.

Goal 2: Increase Persistence to Graduation. It is a bit early to assess progress on this this goal, but retention of new freshman and transfer students in our traditional programs trended up by approximately 6.5% from Academic Year 2013 to Academic Year 2014. Our ultimate goal for traditional undergraduates is a 5-year graduation rate of 60%. Retention in our non-traditional undergraduate and graduate programs remains strong, and we are well on our way toward consistently meeting our goals of a 5-year graduation rate of 75% for non-traditional undergraduates and a 3-year graduation rate of 85% for graduate students. Again, given the climate in which we are operating, these goals are ambitious as students today frequently carry their academic “portfolio” to three, four, and five universities before completing their degrees. Frankly, we want students to complete in a timely manner regardless of where they begin or finish their degrees.

Goal 3: Increase Transition to Jobs or Graduate School. It is a bit early to assess progress on this goal as well, but we are strengthening various inputs to help students achieve either a first job or admission to graduate school. These inputs include a heavier emphasis on internships in all academic disciplines and intentionally connecting academic majors to employment opportunities. We expect that a recent move to integrate career services with admissions will help motivate students to begin thinking about career outcomes from the moment they begin the college admissions process.

Goal 4: Grow Net Assets. In the last three years net assets have grown by nearly $13 million, a much better result that I had been anticipating. During that period, we’ve reduced long-term debt and bonds payable by over $5.0 million and increased long-term investments by $6.0 million, both of which help secure the future of the University. It’s not like we have been scrimping on expenses to do it. Staff and faculty salaries are up 9.27% over the three-year period and we have absorbed stiff increases in health care insurance, retirement benefits, and disability insurance as well.

As we take stock of the last three years, we have many reasons to give thanks. We also have much more to do, but I will save that for a future President’s Post.

Tom Ries