Good evening everyone, dear colleagues and friends of Concordia. Anne and I have spent an eventful summer—more on that in a few minutes—but we are so glad to see you again, and I am very pleased to welcome to his first Concordia year our new Dean of the College, Eric Eliason.
Last August on this occasion, I spoke of you—our faculty, staff, and friends—as “the genius of the place,” the abiding, indwelling spirit of the college, its deep source of wisdom and vitality. In that talk I was sharply aware of the plan for the college that we had framed together during the 2011-12 year—and of the fact that it would soon go to the Board of Regents for review and approval. It was approved, in October, and so our new work began, with a progress report posted on the web in March of 2013. Quite a lot has already been done, though it is fair to say that the biggest labors lie ahead of us, and that last year was occupied institutionally by the search for our new dean and by other significant transitions, including the launch of the Grant Center as the home for the Offutt School.
Here is my theme for tonight, and for our year: The time of transition has ended. It is time to make, to act, time together to imagine Concordia. In that collective act of imagination we will be guided by the plan adopted by the Regents after our work together here: a plan to educate the whole self, for the whole of life, for the sake of the whole world.
I was on the road and in the air a lot this summer: Ireland, China, the Wye Faculty Seminars on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, the ELCA church-wide assembly in Pittsburgh, a lakeside cabin where I wrote this talk—and some corn-feeds! At one of the latter, I sat down next to a gruff grad from the 50’s, who said to me, “I read that plan of yours. Was going to send you a letter. . . . Back in my day we had Bailey, we had Prausnitz, we had Drache, we had Reidar Thomte, we had Storvick.” His unspoken thesis was that with such stellar teachers, no plans were necessary. I found myself in a quandary: a faculty member all my life, I couldn’t help but like his assumption, though I was about to mention that Professor Bailey himself was a principal author of the Blueprint plans that began during the time of President Knutson—but the conversation shifted, as it does at picnics, to other things.
That grad was right that faculty (and staff) are where all the ladders start, and the subtext of his declaration was right too: that it is the relationships of students with those faculty and staff that transform young lives. But the plans that faculty, staff, regents, and friends of the college make together matter too: they matter because the lives of those young people are at stake. Let me look with you then at where we stand tonight: the state of the college, the state of higher education, and the pressing work of the plan before us this academic year.
The state of the college is a many-sided thing. Walk around it with me for a moment. April Reino, Concordia 2012, a veteran of forensics here and fluent in German, became our most recent Fulbright winner and will be teaching in Vienna. Ruthie Stein, class of 2014, studying at the United International College in southern China, took first place with her business enterprise team in Hong Kong and “then finished in the top 16 competing in Beijing against all teams from Chinese colleges.”[i] Laura Aldrich-Wolfe, Michelle Marko, Joe Whittaker, and their students presented their research at the Ecological Society of America in Minneapolis this August. Susan Lee and Heidi Goldberg from our Art program received one of 13 national awards from the ASIANetwork, in their case to do research with students in Seoul on Korean printmaking. Our student interfaith society, Better Together, won the “biggest campus impact” award from the Interfaith Youth Core. Scott Olsen’s Prairie Sky will soon be in bookstores; Heidi Manning’s work on the atmosphere of Mars appeared in Science; Christian Boy, in Theater, was the scenic designer for the Kennedy Center’s Spring Gala, "My Fair Lady in Concert.” The Gates event last April continues to garner attention as we seek to build resources and recognition. Bucky Burgau won his 400th game. In campus sustainability, Facilities has achieved resource efficiencies in reductions of water, paper, and electricity usage, and in greener transportation. Later this year you will all be invited to a party to replace with native plants the invasive species hedge that borders the president’s home. Bring your shovels!
Now some data: The market for adult professional language learning at the Concordia Language Villages continues to grow. Over the last decade we ranked in the top 13th percentile of colleges whose alums go on to earn PhDs. Our annual “run-rate” of total giving, more than $11.5 million, would be the envy of many peer and even aspirant schools. The total number of applications for admission was the highest it has been since 2009, and our first to second year retention rate is up to more than 85%—5% higher than it was last year. At $92.3 million, our endowment is the highest it has been—ever. Forbes magazine gave us a financial health grade of B, along with Beloit, Lawrence, Morehouse, Georgetown, and many other strong institutions.[ii] And lots of respected places did not make the A/B cut.[iii] Moody’s, as cold-eyed an outfit as you could find, sustained our “stable” financial outlook as well as our bond rating. We are doing many, perhaps even most things, well.
But in the midst of these achievements, we have serious challenges to address. I’ve just cited some “benchmark” data that I will now be reporting each fall to our Regents, data I will publish to you as well. As that data appears, you will see that our enrollment of new first-year students this fall will represent the third highest new class among all Minnesota private colleges. A wonderful mark! But though that number is impressive, we also find that the need of our families has often risen, leading us to direct more institutional funds to help them meet college costs. And though our endowment climbed over the last year, it remains less than we need in order to enrich programs and underwrite expenses as we would like. Current revenue keeps us in the black but without the margins and flexibility we seek.
We can take limited comfort in knowing that our challenges mirror those of higher education as a whole. This past May, at the plenary for our regents (attended as well by members of our Faculty Executive Committee), Randy Boushek, Thrivent CFO and vice chair of our board, and Eugene Tobin—American historian, past president of Hamilton College, and now director of the liberal arts program for the Mellon Foundation—presented a look at the new world of higher education. A brave new world it is, filled with opportunity and with danger. A quick summation of their case:
- Past rising market size, strong pricing power, high barriers to new competitors entering the field, and a favorable economic environment (the average annualized Dow Jones price return for the 18 years between 1981 and 1999 was a breathtaking 15%[iv]) have been replaced by a demographic trough, high sensitivity to price increases (confirmed for us by the recent study completed by our consultants from the Art and Science Group), shiny new competition from online entrepreneurs, and flat American family incomes post recession.
- The demands of financial aid, expensive software, student services, and expanding curricula drive up our costs at the very moment when politicians and the press are clamoring for us to lower our prices.
- Successful responses will require clarity about what makes us distinctive, bold decisions about what to enhance and what to stop, innovative use of new technologies, and partnerships with allies both more predictable (sister schools) and less (business, nonprofits, and community leadership in government, education, and the arts).
I return to my theme for the night: The time of transition has ended. It is time to make, to act, time together to imagine Concordia—in detail and practice. 2013-14 will be, as one of my colleagues said this summer, a pivotal year in the life and history of our college. We will be guided by the plan we have adopted, by the mission on which that plan is grounded, and by our commitment to the community that sustains it.
The purpose of Concordia College is to influence the affairs of the world by sending into society thoughtful and informed men and women dedicated to the Christian life.
Carl Bailey’s statement is so familiar that we can easily fail to think about its assumptions, but I want to do that with you now. The statement assumes and affirms
- the worth of human being as the gift of a loving God
- the virtue of open human inquiry and discovery
- the freedom of human beings to act
- the vocation of human beings to act for the health and flourishing of their neighbors, not only known and near but also strange and far away.
The community in which our mission and its affirmations live will make all the difference in our actions. I have been thinking about the nature of that community in response to an essay by American novelist Marilynne Robinson, whom many will know as the author of Gilead. Robinson’s essay became summer reading for that long-suffering college band known as my cabinet. Robinson makes the case that community “consists very largely of imaginative love for people we do not know or whom we know very slightly.”[v] For Robinson, this love for the stranger is the matter of thinking well of the other, of imagining the best of his or her possibilities, of remembering (in an American context) “a religious tradition that loved the soul and mind” and that reminds us that “we are, and we live among, souls precious to God.”[vi] And for Robinson, a central lived experience of such imaginative love can be found within the university, where students are ever, first, strangers to us,[vii] and where, we might add, we are often strangers to one another.
If Robinson is right that community is the imaginative love of those unlike us, then there can be no concept of “us vs. them” in our community as we seek to fulfill the plan for the college. We must, on the contrary, think and want the best for our students and our colleagues; we must want, in the fullest sense, their happiness, lives well lived. If we imagine less of the other, we diminish ourselves, and we, as Robinson writes, “diminish the worth of institutions of society [like college] . . . when we forget respect and love for the imagined other . . . who will take the good from these institutions that we invest in them, or who will be harmed or disheartened because our institutions are warped by meagerness and cynicism.”[viii] “The great truth,” to quote Robinson one final time, “the great
truth . . . too often forgotten is that it is in the nature of people to do good to one another.”[ix]
So, given the state of the college, given the state of higher education, given our plan, given our living heritage of mission and community, what do we do together in this pivotal year in the life of Concordia College? I conclude my address with five actions:
- One: As I noted in the public budget meeting this past April, we must seize the present opportunity to determine the optimal size and scope of Concordia College. Let me emphasize that this will not be in any way a departure from the college plan but rather a fundamental tool for achieving it if we are to reach our aspirations for student learning and for the thriving of our faculty and staff.
- Two: As we seek to educate the whole self, we must seize the opportunity to be a college dedicated to the examined life, and in particular this year, to think what it means to be community for worship, and for spiritual and vocational discernment. At a time when the young and not so young have found themselves less and less drawn to religion, we have the enormous resource—if we will but use it—of a Lutheran tradition rooted not in what scholar Darrell Jodock calls the “decision theology” so dominant in America (where salvation is the reward of assent to certain beliefs) but rooted rather in relationship—relationship with a steadfast and “down-to-earth” God who comes to us in love and relationships with our neighbor—of our own faith and of other faiths—in whom we see God’s face.[x] Such a relational faith sets us free to wonder, to question, to act boldly, and to do what is good both for the larger world.
- Three: As we seek to educate for the whole of life, we must seize the opportunity to fashion a humane and creative arc of experience for students at Concordia: an experience that goes far beyond the collection of credits they can increasingly get anywhere; an experience that changes from first year through senior, offering and demanding of them the increasing innovation, rigor, and risk they will need to practice in order to solve the muddy problems of their collegiate and post-graduate lives. That this ambition accords with what the most recent Art and Science Group study, completed this June, tells us powerfully attracts potential new students is a good thing, but it is also a good thing in itself—a part of the plan that will demand the highest levels of imagination inside our disciplinary and divisional homes—and in collaborations beyond them.
- Four: As we seek to educate for the whole of life, we must seize the opportunity to insure that our students make successful transitions to life after college: professional life, life as citizens, life as flourishing human beings. Such a commitment to post-graduate lives of career and purpose for our students will require that we re-think how we help them build competence, creativity, and character—and how they demonstrate that to those who will hire them, accept them into full-time service, or admit them to graduate school. In this we must call on not only faculty and staff but also on parents and graduates and friends. Any honest one of us knows how much this meant to us when we were in college or grad school; there is no needful conflict between our commitment to liberal learning and our recognition of what is at stake for students as they seek to enter their professional lives. We must do this better than any other college. That this ambition accords with what Art and Science has told us powerfully attracts potential students is a good thing, but it is also what integrity as professionals ourselves calls us to do.
- Five: As we seek to educate for the sake of the whole world, we must seize the opportunity—retreat by pilot by curricular experiment by grant by major gift—to make global learning fundamental to every student’s experience, using the resources of both campus and Language Villages to do so. That this ambition matches what Art and Science have told us appeals to our most academically well prepared and curious potential students is a good thing, but we know from our immigrant roots and from our mission that it is also good in itself—and good for all students. We know that the embrace of other languages, cultures, and ways of knowing gives us back our best selves and prospers the life of our global neighbor.
In this last week, a former student came up to me to tell the delightful story of his life as a young parish pastor—a story I could not have predicted from our prior encounters. In this last week, our still young ELCA—to the surprise and the delight of many—elected Elizabeth Eaton as its first woman presiding bishop. In this last week a 90-year old man whom I have known all my life sat down across from me to tell me a story I had never heard before about his young, post-war life as a college student.
Our lives are a gift, and so are the lives of others. Knowing that, we are free to wonder and to imagine the very best of ourselves and of the strangers whom we love in community. We are free to claim the hope and promise of our Concordia mission. We have daunting work ahead, but it is—thank God—great work, worthy of our vocation as a global liberal arts college of the church. And in our freedom, we have great resources:
- the deep devotion of our faculty and staff to student learning
- the good will of our community in recognizing both the challenges and opportunities before us and in responding to them with quick minds and collective energy
- the understanding of vocation not only for our individual students, faculty, and staff, but of our vocation as a whole college, a global liberal arts college of the church directed toward the fashioning of strong professionals, engaged citizens, and friends to neighbors here and around the world
- the abiding strength of our mission, binding us, hearts together with generations present, past, and yet to come in love of our college and the community it ever renews.
Time to act.
Soli Deo Gloria.
Please note: The address has been edited for publication.
[i] Concordia eNews, Summer 2013. See https://www.concordiacollege.edu/news-media/detail/finding-business-success-in-china/.
[iv] Boushek presentation to the Concordia Board of Regents, May 16, 2013.
[v] Robinson, When I Was a Child I Read Books (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2012), p. 21.
[vi] Robinson, p. 24 and p. 30.
[vii] Robinson, p. 23.
[viii] Robinson, p. 32.
[ix] Robinson, p. 33.
[x] Jodock, “Higher Education Built on a Lutheran Foundation,” presentation to the ELCA college presidents, February 11, 2013, LECNA Meeting, Amelia Island, Florida.