Good evening, dear colleagues and friends of Concordia. Anne and I rejoice to see you again, reminded by your presence of the good and joyful work we do together in mission at this global liberal arts college of the church. As president, I have the privilege of marking occasions, and it is a particular pleasure for me this evening to note that for Professor Olin Storvick, tonight marks his 60th opening fall at Concordia College. Olin, congratulations!
Commencement is an unusual title for an opening year address—strange in our August ears because our students’ commencement happens in May, when we send them out to influence the affairs of the world. Rightly enough, we think of it as a ritual in which we seek to make sense of what has passed and to express our high hopes for what will be. This evening, I want to use the word in its root meaning: To commence is to begin. And on this occasion, I mean to begin with sharp focus and mutual commitment the work of fashioning the Concordia College of our 125th anniversary and beyond. We have the imagination, the resources, and the need to act.
Of course we have already begun, and significantly so. Before the Board of Regents meeting in September my office will publish an update of progress on the strategic plan: Whole Self, Whole Life, Whole World. Under the whole self initiative, whose purpose is to lead students into the habit of an examined life, we have already launched
- A highly engaging interfaith program that has garnered national recognition
- A Lorentzsen Center for Faith and Work that has drawn to campus business leaders from our region and further afield
- A president’s seminar that invites everyone on campus to gather and consider our deep questions and purposes
- And this past spring, the first phase of the Worship, Faith, and Spiritual Practice Project to map the spiritual lives of our students and encourage their development.
Under the whole life initiative, whose goal is to guide undergraduates through a four-year experience that increases their capacity for innovation, rigor, and risk, we have already
- Markedly increased the number of students engaged in our celebration of student scholarship, moving from 98 in spring 2013 to 203 in spring 2014—and this of course is just the front porch of all the collaborative scholarship among students and faculty.
- Established a strong, professional working partnership among our science renovation executive committee, our architects, and our construction manager, with schematic design now being tested against cost parameters.
- Commissioned a thorough re-thinking and re-design of our approach to student career readiness, an initiative that will link our focus on exploration of vocation with direct student engagement on pathways that run from college learning to work or graduate study.
- Commissioned the faculty summer working group on experiential learning and calendar, now named integrative learning, whose report will be presented starting tomorrow morning as part of our fall workshop.
- And this summer, we commissioned faculty and staff to make recommendations on how we might extend Concordia’s educational reach to new types of students through current and potential new programs. Their opening report was presented earlier today.
Under the whole world initiative, whose purpose is to develop a global cultural understanding and competency in all of our students, using the resources of our own campus, our global learning office, and our Concordia Language Villages, we have already
- Equipped 97% of our classrooms with the instructional technology capacity for national and international connection
- Launched a new English Language Learning program for new students coming to Concordia or to other American colleges
- Received an Andrew W. Mellon Foundation grant for innovative language learning, drawing on both Moorhead campus and CLV resources
- Created a vision for sustainability in learning and in practice for our college, receiving this spring a significant grant for sustainability teaching, learning, and practical application.
And in the strategic initiatives to enhance our resources, recognition, and the work experience of our people, we have
- Completed a record breaking year in college fundraising, with the current year on pace to break the record again
- Increased our endowment from $83M in 2011 to over $100M as of today—halfway to the goal we set in October of 2012
- Launched a new collaboration in enrollment marketing with the MindPower firm from Atlanta
- Contracted with Bentz Whalley Flessner in designing the next comprehensive college campaign, to go the Board of Regents for approval at its advancement focused meeting this coming January
- Completed a study on gender equity in compensation and work experience, and a study nearing completion of compensation categories and market levels for our staff.
And more! Of the five initiatives I cited as central in last year’s state of the college address, all five have been undertaken, with real achievement in each.
So why am I talking about the need to commence? Along with all the progress just summarized—progress we owe to the creativity and devotion of faculty, staff, alumni, and friends—we face what has been a way up and way down pattern in the enrollment of new students each fall. First to second year retention has stabilized in the impressive 83-85% range, and we set our sights now to the 90% goal in the strategic plan. The number of continuing students projected last April—1720—is almost exactly the number we now have. The number of new transfer students is up over last year, exceeding our goal.
But the enrollment of new, U.S. first-year students has not been consistent. Lest there be any confusion, let me note that we have been consistent in the recruiting academically well-prepared high school graduates. Most of our losses in yield this past season were among less well-prepared applicants. Nevertheless, the lack of a consistent enrollment class year by year makes the progress we are committed to making on the strategic initiatives more challenging. How should we go forward? How do we achieve the right resolution of this challenge?
We remember our strengths, and we take clear, bold, creative action. Let me recall those strengths now, though only in short form:
- A remarkable continuity of mission as a global liberal arts college of the church, living right now, in our understanding of vocation, in the commitment of our curriculum to enable our students to become responsibly engaged in the world, and in the initiatives of our strategic plan
- A founding union of the liberal arts with applied learning, a heritage that has newly inspired our summer working group on integrative learning
- A faculty devoted to engaged student learning and a staff that cares deeply about the welfare of the college as a whole
- An engaged and dedicated board, becoming more focused year by year in understanding its critical role in our success
- Consistently strong fiscal management and management principles that has seen us through both good and challenging times
- Striking support from our benefactors through an Advancement operation that is on a fundraising roll: we exceeded our goal last year, and at this very early date, we have already received more than 58% of our $15.4M goal for the current year—most of it designated for endowment.
- In Moorhead and at CLV, two beautiful settings and two operations that have the potential for far greater synergy than we have achieved to date
- A genuine ethic of care and good will that has arisen over 123 years of faithful response to our Lutheran heritage of gratitude and service to neighbor
- An enviable placement record in graduate and professional schools (punching far above the weight of our financial resources)
- Strong affirmation by the Higher Learning Commission in our 10-year reaccreditation
And to this I will add a strength I heard from a young faculty member in conversation this summer: a communal longing for a faithful and imaginative response to our challenges.
We remember our strengths, knowing that they constitute the foundation on which we build the Concordia for 2016 and beyond. Now, we must determine the focus of our educational endeavors and of those undertaken to support them.
- I submit that the report on integrative learning can provide a defining measure for decisions about academic time and resources. Integrative learning presumes that there is something to integrate, and so it is not at odds with disciplinary excellence in the arts, sciences, and humanities. Rather it recalls for us what disciplinary excellence is for; it sets a direction and leading edge for us in the wholeness of a Concordia education.
- And that goal will be directly connected to the career readiness initiative that will move students from counseling about career to the practice of addressing real problems in real time—during their Concordia years.
- I submit that we need to think and act beyond past patterns in seeking those who will thrive through a Concordia education. The planning efforts of the late 90s at Concordia to look at new kinds of students in traditional and new kinds of programs, though they did not then gain acceptance, are nonetheless prophetic. We need to respond with deep diligence to the study this summer that will present us with recommendations on recruiting transfer students, on the expansion and addition of accelerated learning programs, and other potential extensions of our educational mission.
- All of us pledge to construct the most effective partnership in recruitment and retention of Concordia students: a partnership among our Enrollment professionals, our faculty, and all on our staff—together with Concordia’s graduates and friends.
- The cabinet, in consultation with faculty and administrative leadership, will work out the decisions we must make for 2015-16 and beyond on workforce size; pace of strategic gains in compensation and program; and scope of additional operational efficiencies.
- With the support of the board, the college cabinet has determined to go forward this year with the increase to our faculty and staff salary pool and the increase to employee benefits that I announced last April. Planned increases in compensation will make up the largest portion of strategic budgeting for the next several years.
Before I close, an illustration.
The image above me is of the “efficiency men,” a 1916 photo of a specialized crew at the Farrell Works of the American Steel and Tin Plate Company. They took the bars that Carnegie forged and turned them into rolled sheets of steel. The very handsome fellow seated in the front row, wearing a cap, with his right hand on a steel rod and his left on his knee is my paternal grandfather, who became a foreman in this mill, later tapped to travel to Toronto to teach Canadians the new manufacturing techniques. Steel was the story of Shennago Valley where my grandfather worked, of the Mahoning Valley right across the Ohio line, where eventually 25 straight miles of mills were built and where my wife’s father, with his new Stanford history PhD, earned more money in the summer at the factory than he did teaching at his Presbyterian college in western Pennsylvania. And down the road where the three rivers met in Pittsburgh, steel was even bigger, booming through and beyond the second world war.
Pittsburgh is thriving today, even though most steel making has moved abroad; the same gritty ethic prevails from the days of my childhood, but it is turned to higher education, to energy, and to health care. The Shenango and Mahoning Valleys, by sharp contrast, have fallen on hard times, in significant part because the landed barons of steel there made certain in their heyday that no different, competing industries came in. In the 1950s, Ford sought to open an auto plant but was turned away. When international competition brought the Valley factories to a close, the moneyed steel families who had stopped innovation and diversity of industry “were long gone.”1 I look literally at these two landscapes of my youth—the three rivers of Pittsburgh and the valleys in and around Youngstown—and I ask, “What were the ethics of not changing?”
At Concordia College, we have an inspired and inspiring mission: we know our task in education and in the world. And we know that we have faced tougher times than those that confront us now: when the young college nearly split apart over whether to keep its union of liberal and applied learning; when enrollments plummeted during WWII, and when the new president Joseph Knutson arrived in 1951, with a down enrollment, a downed athletic facility, and so little cash that buildings and grounds superintendent Art Sanden appealed to him directly for the funds to replace a broken elevator chain. Yet here we are! We are here because of the faith, the determination, and adaptive ingenuity of our predecessors, a faith, determination, and ingenuity I see in front of me right here, right now.
So I close by thanking all those who have worked in the spring and summer on integrative learning, on career readiness, on new students and programs, on international recruitment, on gender equity, and on the worship, faith, and spiritual practice of this community. And by thanking everyone who everyday sustains this college in its singular, vital faith and learning mission. In 1956, at the close of what had threatened to be a bad day, when to his surprise President Knutson received an unexpected gift that relieved some of the financial pressure the college was enduring, he wrote to his friends Joyce and Harley Carlson that guiding Concordia is an “act of faith.”
It is possible to read that phrase and think he meant a matter of waiting in hope for something good to happen. But everything I know about Prexy Joe suggests to me that he meant that leading the college was an action of faith. It still is. It is an action of fidelity, of imagination, of courage. The gift that day was a check. We are getting plenty of checks from givers these days—thanks and amen! But at the heart is the gift of your ingenuity, your determination, your love of this college. Time to act on that gift. Time to commence. Thank you all, and to God alone be the glory.
1 George Packer, The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014), p. 50.