A Timely Theme of the Year

 

Concordia’s University’s theme of the year – A More Excellent Way – could not be more timely in the wake of a divisive national election. Our theme is based on the Apostle Paul’s discussion of diversity within the body of Christ. He praises God for the diversity of gifts which exist in the body, but allows that diversity holds within it the potential for insensitive and even destructive words and actions.  Amid our differences, Paul urges “a more excellent way,” which is the way of love. He continues, “Love is patient, love is kind . . . it is not proud, arrogant, or rude . . . does not seek its own way . . . is not arrogant or boastful.  Love never ends.” The free expression of ideas, shared in respectful dialogue, is a cherished ideal at our university. We believe that this mutual sharing is at its best when enhanced by the Christ-like love of which the Apostle is speaking.

In recent days, the United States has seen strong differences of opinion emerging from our national election. Differences within a democracy are not only good, they are a necessary part of the democratic process. But differences of opinion, especially when not tempered by love, have the inherent potential to deteriorate into actions hurtful to others or destructive to property. Unfortunately, we have witnessed some of these behaviors in various parts of the country since the results of the election were realized.

Fortunately, on the Concordia campus we have witnessed no such hurtful or destructive behaviors. I am very aware that there are many differences of opinion among our faculty, students, and staff about matters of national interest. But so far they have been expressed in civil discourse and mutual respect and love.  I thank all of you for your exemplary conduct.  Our university’s treasured diversity, in race, creed, color, national origin, nationality, and gender presents wonderful opportunities for each of us to grow in understanding ourselves and the world around us.

Grace and peace.

Tom Ries

International U.

 

Concordia University Saint Paul is becoming an international university, with international students coming from around the world to study here and U. S. students traveling and studying abroad.

Students “coming here”

This fall, according to institutional researcher Beth Peter, a record 18 countries are represented on campus with 146 students who have international status. The countries include: Canada, Cambodia, China, Cote d’Ivoire, Germany, Ghana, India, Iran, Kenya, Liberia, Norway, Peru, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, Venezuela, Vietnam, and Yemen.

Six years ago we had just three international students from three countries in the student body. When we realized that CSP was in demand by international students, we invested heavily in qualified staff to manage our processes for serving non-U. S. student and equipping faculty and staff to meet their needs. Tiffanie Loeb Schneider, Colleen Cahill, Drew Boatman, and Katie Jabri are among our staff working with international students, and Tom Allen was instrumental in building our program.

We also dedicated space to international student programming, and because of expanding enrollments the offices serving international students were moved this summer to the building at 1371 Marshall Avenue. Our international student population enriches our classrooms and campus life.  I have personally enjoyed getting to know a number of them quite well, and I know that our faculty have built even deeper relationships with international students that sometimes extend even beyond graduation.

Students “going there”

At the same time that we are welcoming students from around the world to our university, we are also sending increasing numbers of undergraduate and graduate students to travel and study abroad. Kate Larson and Kelly Matthias from our C.A.L.L. Center (Community, Action, Leadership, and Learning Center) report that in 2015-16 CSP study abroad students participated in programs in 17 countries. 61% of students who attended an initial advising meeting decided to study abroad for a semester. 40% of the students who studied abroad were graduate students. New direct enroll programs in Italy and Australia were added to existing opportunities already in place in China, South Korea, and Cambridge, England, and partnerships are being explored in Ireland and Ecuador.

 

brandenburggate_201301_csptour_ranatamayerhoferStudents with Prof. Renata Mayrhofer at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin.

Students traveling outside the U. S. have gone to study abroad for a semester, or for a week, or two, or three, as part of a choir or other fine arts tour, on service trips and mission trips, to work on an archaeological dig, and for numerous other reasons. Students who study abroad show strong growth in the following outcome areas: Sense of independence and self-reliance, ability to navigate situations of uncertainty, and sense of confidence in a new or different situation or when meeting new people. In addition, study abroad is linked to stronger persistence to graduation.

Other Travel

In addition to student participation, Concordia alumni and friends have traveled abroad through Concordia-sponsored trips most recently to New Zealand, Israel, Turkey and Greece, and Germany. An upcoming trip in May 2017 to Norway will be hosted by Professor Eric Dregni, expert extraordinaire in Norwegian culture and author of such engaging books as Vikings in the Attic: In Search of Nordic America and In Cod We Trust: Living the Norwegian Dream. Eric’s easy style and strong international experience are sure to make this a fabulous trip.

There you have it.  Concordia University St. Paul . . . International U.!

Tom Ries

 

CSP Recognized for Outstanding Quality

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In her report last week to the Board of Regents, Vice-President for Academic Affairs Dr. Marilyn Reineck noted that this fall Concordia University St. Paul received a number of unsolicited recognitions for the quality of academic programs.

SportsManagementDegreeHub.com ranked our BA in Exercise Science as the #1 online kinesiology bachelor’s degree in the United States.

Washington Monthly ranked Concordia University St. Paul as #4 in the nation in the 2016 Best Colleges for Adult Learners category.

Bestcolleges.com ranks CSP’s masters degree in criminal justice as # 5 in the United States.

Thebestschools.org ranks Concordia St. Paul in the top 50 for best online colleges in the U. S.  (Incidentally, number 1 in that ranking was a little school called Penn State University.)

I’m sure there will be more of these types of recognitions to come.  They reinforce what people say to me wherever I go.  “It’s amazing to see what is going on over at Concordia” is the most frequent comment.  Often it is fueled by the publicity we have received through our affordability initiatives.  For example, I walked past Minnesota Congressman Keith Ellison on the street in Washington D. C. several weeks ago and, once he had recognized me, he said:  “You’re doing a great job keeping tuition low over there!”  Our value proposition is clearly in the minds of consumers and decision-makers.

Recently, a friend of mine, who is not a CSP grad, said to me (again unsolicited), “Mary [his wife] and I think Concordia St. Paul is the best college in the state.”  Naturally I thanked him for his comment.  When I asked him to tell me why they thought so, he said:  “Because you are doing what colleges should be doing in the 21st century . . . making academic programs relevant, paying attention to affordability, and helping kids successfully complete.”  I thought perhaps he had been sneaking a peak at our strategic plan!  Instead, though following Concordia from a distance, he has formed these perspectives.  He is not alone.  And I couldn’t agree with him more.

Thanks for all you are doing to help CSP achieve the recognition we deserve and the student success we desire.

Grace and peace!

Tom Ries

 

 

Old Roots, New Roots

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Recently I had the rare privilege of visiting my ancestral home, the little village of Linthal, Canton Glarus, Switzerland.  My great-great grandparents, Paulus and Christiania Ries, made their home here and had nine children, five of whom survived past childhood.  Paulus was killed in a farming accident in 1850, and three years later Great-great Grandmother Christiania moved with her five children to the United States, settling in Indiana and buying a small farm outside Ft. Wayne.  One of her children, Paulus, Jr., matriculated at Concordia College in Addison, Illinois and became a Lutheran school teacher and church organist.  He married my Great-grandmother Sophie Clasen, and they spent much of their lives in Minnesota.  Both are buried at Elmhurst Cemetery in St. Paul.

Paulus, Jr. and Sophie had ten children.  The sixth, Henry, my grand uncle, matriculated at Concordia College in St. Paul, which was then a brand new school.  Based on the German Gymnasium, the original academic program at CSP included a high school and two-year college.  Henry Ries was a member of the first graduating class of the high school.  He went on to a career as an accountant and salesman.  There are still numerous members of the Ries clan living in the Twin Cities.

As I stood in my ancestral home, I marveled at the courage and foresight it took for my great-great grandmother to pack up and move with five children to the United States.  Unfortunately, the reasons she chose to come are lost to our family history.  Most likely she was seeking a better life for herself and her family.  Also while standing in Linthal, I marveled at the courage and foresight that continues to bring new immigrants to the United States, many of whom will become U. S. citizens and a fair number of whom are also enrolling at Concordia St. Paul.

I like being at Concordia where we continue to empower all our students to discover and engage their purpose for life, career, and service, wherever they are from and wherever they are going.  Grace and peace!

Tom Ries

 

Enrollment Up . . . What a Privilege!

 

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As we enter the second week of the fall 2016 semester, indications are that enrollment will be up again – for the fourth year in a row. By census date next week it appears that total enrollment will top 4,500 students, with growth coming in all three areas of our program: traditional undergraduate, non-traditional undergraduate, and graduate education.

We praise and thank our gracious God for this strong growth in enrollment. We count it a privilege that so many students are choosing to further their education at Concordia University St. Paul. Students, you honor us with our presence and we promise to do the best we can to prepare you for thoughtful and informed living, dedicated service to him and humanity and the enlightened care of his creation all within the context of the Christian Gospel.

During the last four years, CSP enrollment is up nearly 60%, an astonishing number. When asked the reasons for this growth, I usually point to three: 1) our capacity to bring quality new academic programs to the marketplace, 2) a competitive pricing strategy that makes private education affordable when compared to public options and other privates, and 3) constructive relationships with some excellent marketing partners.

I am also pleased that we are on a course of sustainable growth. Sustainable growth is a concept I learned many years ago. In short a company, a school, a church, or any organization can grow too fast and lose the capacity to effectively fulfill its mission. We are seeing evidence that our growth is sustainable first in the fact that rates of retention and persistence to graduation are up. We have set aggressive objectives for persistence, and are seeing positive results. Second, net assets are up as well. We had another good year financially in 2015-16, on the heels of four previous good financial years. This performance makes it possible for us to invest in three main areas: financial aid for students, wage and salary increases for staff and faculty, and improvements and maintenance to our facilities. All of this strengthens our capacity “to prepare students.”

Most importantly, however, I believe that the fundamental reason for our growth is a faculty and staff who are immensely dedicated to student success. As President, I am extremely grateful to God for the widespread commitment to student success which exists on our campus. A tip of the cap to all of you!

Grace and peace.

Tom Ries

 

Multicultural, Urban Environment

 

Part of the Concordia Promise is a “multicultural, urban environment.”  We are located in the heart St. Paul’s “Midway District,” a wonderfully diverse neighborhood. Over 40% of our traditional-aged college students are students of color and this fall we will have students from 18 countries on campus. Amazing!

We take great pride in our capacity to serve the needs of a diverse population and the response to our efforts from students and alumni has been extremely positive over many generations. We watch them soar with great pride and affection.  The Diversity Affairs Office, led by Dr. Cheryl Chatman, plays a big role in empowering all students to be successful in college, especially students of color. For over a decade, Dr. Chatman has personally facilitated a large meeting as part of Welcome Week to introduce herself, the services of the Diversity Affairs Office, and the many multicultural dynamics of the university and its greater community to incoming students of color.  It is the University’s chance to embrace and personally welcome them.

The Administration considers the meeting to be so important, that Dr. Chatman has even noted that participation is “expected” in the letters she has sent for over a decade to new students of color.  This past Monday, August 1, she sent just such a letter of invitation to our incoming students to attend this meeting and did say that it was “expected.”  One incoming student who received the letter took offense at the use of bold highlighting in the second paragraph noting that the meeting was expected.  The student obscured the introductory welcoming paragraph, the third paragraph describing the subject of the meeting, and the fourth paragraph congratulating students on their new educational journey. The student then posted the obfuscated version of the letter on Facebook indicating that she was “saddened by this message.”

Immediately upon the public release of the edited letter, the University issued a response and Dr. Chatman reached out to the student via telephone to clarify the intent of the meeting. The student indicated in a followup post that the call was good, although she was still unhappy about the nature of the meeting and the letter.  The message on Facebook was shared many times.  The university responded to as many of these shares as possible eventually releasing the full text of the letter and a clarifying statement written by Dr. Chatman indicating the positive aspects of this meeting as well as the reasoning why students of color were being asked to attend.

I wish to say that as President of Concordia University I personally take responsibility for any controversies of this nature that occur at our university.  I also want to say that I fully support Dr. Chatman in both her intentions and her actions, as do her many colleagues at Concordia who respect and adore her.  Over her career she has empowered literally thousands of students to succeed in college, and become leaders in their careers and communities.  I am sorry that some found the wording in our letter to be offensive, and we will certainly address that written construct.  But I affirm our commitment to empower all students to discover and engage their purpose for their personal lives, careers, and lives of service to others. I look forward to the great things our new students will accomplish, just as we celebrate the accomplishments of the legions of our alumni who have gone before them.

Grace and peace.

Tom Ries

Among the 50 Best

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Concordia University Saint Paul was recently named by TheBestSchools.org as one of the 50 Best Online Colleges in the United States  (http://www.thebestschools.org/rankings/best-online-colleges/#toc).  I usually don’t pay much attention to these types of rankings primarily because they are often so subjective in nature.  But this particular notice does give me an opportunity to talk about the place of online learning at our University.  Moreover, the company we keep with this latest ranking includes an impressive array of such universities as Penn State, Massachusetts, Boston, Florida, Missouri, and Northeastern.

Certainly CSP was one of the earliest pioneers in online education in the State of Minnesota.  The groundwork was laid for online programming with the Concordia School of Adult Learning, founded in 1985.  This degree completion program for adults had one offering – a Bachelor of Arts in Organizational Management offered in a cohort delivery system, with classes meeting one night a week.  This important beginning spawned a wide range of BA programs in cohorts.  In the mid-1990s Concordia became one of the first laptop campuses in Minnesota, providing a laptop computer to each incoming student.  The combination of cohorts and laptops led to entire academic programs being offered in an online environment during the 2000s.  Today most of our non-traditional undergraduate and graduate programs are offered in optional online or “blended” formats (cohorts meeting both face-to-face and online), and our traditional undergraduate programs occasionally offer some online option, including days when the class cannot meet due to inclement weather. Certainly online learning is a robust part of the Concordia ethos, and is one important way we exemplify our commitment to be Responsive, Relevant, and Real.

Speaking of “the 3 R’s” last week I received an email from a distraught parent of a non-U.S. citizen student, who was encountering some challenges with the student’s choice of program.  I will say that is a first for me . . . to receive an email from a parent of an international student!  Anyway, the parent posed a problem related to the student’s visa status.  With one email from me to Tom Allen, Eric LaMott, and Katie Fisher, the wheels were set in motion to get much needed help.   Tom and Katie both offered to meet with the student and the parent the very next day.  A few days later the parent wrote to Katie, while copying several others:  “Mary (not the student’s real name) and I are extremely grateful for the hard work that you, Katie Jabri, and your colleagues have put in over a very short period of time.  I’m not fully aware of all who were involved in this success story.  Your university certainly lives up to the motto of being ‘Responsive.'”  A rating like that for our university means more to me than being named one of the “50 best.”  Moreover, I know there are scores of incidents like that repeated each and every day throughout our campus involving faculty and staff who are near fanatical about being responsive to student needs.

We are now in the countdown to fall semester 2016.  Enrollment again looks very positive for the fall, and we may very likely post a fifth consecutive year of enrollment growth (cf. Strategic Goal 1).  One of the more exciting aspects of that growth is that it has gotten a big boost from a healthy increase in the percentage of traditional undergraduate students retaining from freshman to sophomore year (cf. Strategic Goal 2).  Enrolling students is important . . . helping them graduate even more important.

Thank you for the part you are playing in empowering students to succeed.  Grace and Peace.

Tom Ries

 

 

 

 

Summer Projects

 

Summer is always a time for us to make major capital improvements to our facilities and this summer of 2016 is no exception. This year’s projects are aimed primarily at three areas: the fine arts, athletics, and academics/administration.

The biggest project is a $1 million makeover of the Buetow Auditorium. This project includes replacement and reconfiguration of the seats, rebuilding of the stage, repairs and upgrades to the organ, improvements to sound, lighting and acoustics, and paint and visual enhancements throughout the space. We are grateful that the entire project has been funded through donor support and plan a rededication of the auditorium and recognition of our supporters on August 29.  We are also grateful to our long-time partner Kraus-Anderson, which is managing the project.

Donor gifts are also helping fund major changes in athletic locker rooms in the Gangelhoff Center, Fandrei Building, and the Lutheran Memorial Center (LMC), where our women’s softball team and new women’s lacrosse team will have their homes. We are also planning to improve our facilities for weight training and fitness, which will benefit all our athletic teams.

After acquiring a lease on the fifth floor of the Central Midway Building last year, we are finalizing a lease on the ninth floor as well. Construction is ensuing this summer to prepare the space to house the Office of University Advancement, and two additional classrooms. The view from that floor is spectacular and I can’t wait for you to see it!

The building at 1371 Marshall Avenue is being transformed into the Center for International Studies. Our growing population of international students – from 13 countries last year – will receive the space they need to adapt to and flourish in their home-away-from-home at Concordia University. We have truly been enriched by the growth of our international population in recent years and their sheer numbers led us to dedicate a single building to their support.

In addition to all these major facility upgrades, a number of faculty offices are slated for new paint, carpet and general fix-up this summer as well. We have a rotation in place for upgrading all offices and classrooms, and most of them have gotten some kind of attention over the last ten years.

Finally, we are not only making improvements to a number of facilities, we are also parting with two. The Dobberfuhl Apartment Building on Marshall Avenue and the Schlueter Apartment Building on Dayton are being sold. These buildings have been under university ownership for many decades, but certainly are in need of the tender love and care they will receive from new owners. We anticipate that proceeds from the sale of these two properties will be reinvested into the purchase of property contiguous to the campus when opportunities arise in the future.  We are grateful to another long-time partner, Frauenshuh Companies, which is managing a number of facility and land transitions for us.

I am also grateful to all those on our university faculty and staff directly involved in the planning and execution of these important changes on our campus.  May God grant all of you a restful summer . . . unless you are one of those involved in these capital improvement projects, in which case you will need some rest in the fall!

Grace and peace.

Tom Ries

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