Announcement leaves thousands stunned
PORTLAND — A 115-year-old Christian institution of higher learning in the Rose City will close this spring, and the announcement last month stunned thousands of students, faculty, staff and supporters. The prevailing reaction was grief, but some also expressed deep frustration or anger over the sudden decision.
Concordia University in northeast Portland, affiliated with the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, had no other choice in the face of mounting financial challenges, a somber Thomas Ries, the school’s new interim president, told local media Feb. 10.
But a report by The Oregonian several days later raised questions about whether conflicts between the university and the socially conservative synod on sexual orientation issues also might have been a factor.
The shutdown leaves about 5,700 students forced to decide their next steps, and 1,518 Concordia employees needing to find work elsewhere.
“What causes me the most grief from this news are the missed opportunities for reflecting the love of Jesus to people,” wrote Paul Linnermann, president of the synod’s Northwest District and himself a Corcordia alumnus. “Concordia had undergone a transformation. It was a place where Christian leaders were trained and grew spiritually so that they could be in mission once they graduated. It since moved to a place where it became the mission field, as many students came to Concordia as a place where they encountered the Gospel and the love of Christ for the first time. That’s the part that hurts my heart the most.”
The last commencement ceremony at the Portland campus will take place April 25.
It was initially thought that Concordia’s law school in Boise, Idaho, also would close, but Concordia University-St. Paul (Minn.) has agreed to continue and oversee it. That school also has agreed to absorb Concordia Portland’s accelerated nursing program; its students will be able to complete their studies at another Portland site.
Other Northwest schools, including several Christian schools, stepped in quickly, offering to fill the gap. Representatives of Corban University in Salem and Northwest Christian University in Eugene visited Concordia to help outline how students could transfer to their schools. Multnomah University announced it would provide annual scholarships to all Concordia transfers who enroll full time, and George Fox University offered similar incentives, including a $5,000 grant, 100 percent acceptance of Concordia credits and waived application fees. Seattle Pacific University offered much the same, including up to $7,000 in transfer scholarships.
Upon closure, Concordia will turn over the 24-acre campus at 2811 N.E. Holman St. to the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod and to one of the school’s lenders, Lutheran Church Extension Fund. It is expected they will seek a buyer for the campus.
Concordia offers 15 undergraduate degrees, along with graduate programs in management and English. It had 8,000 students four years ago, but enrollment drops of recent years have hit many universities hard nationally.
Of the current 5,700 students, only about 1,200 attend class on campus, and most study online. The Oregonian reported. The university contracted with HotChalk Inc., a California technology company, to help it grow enrollment and revenue, and part of that effort included a new online program. But according to The Oregonian, it was a costly effort; Concordia paid HotChalk more than $59 million in 2016 and another $30 million in 2017, tax returns. showed.
Reis told KGW-TV News that raising tuition or cutting salaries was no longer an option, as both had been tried but that the university was still losing money. He also noted that the school’s primary lender, a Lutheran agency, was no longer willing to loan the university more dollars.
But an Oregonian story Feb. 13 raised questions about whether the financial problems were caused, in part, by the presence at the university of a campus resource center supporting LGBTQ students. The newspaper stated Missouri Synod officials were “deep-ly unhappy” with Concordia’s decision to allow the center to open in 2018.
Last November, the synod’s governing board passed a resolution stating that they would withhold further financial help until the university “addressed” issues regarding the center and brought its articles and bylaws back into conformity with synod policies. The synod is strongly conservative regarding gay rights, and contends that the homosexual lifestyle is sinful and that sexual relations are to be reserved only for one-man-one-woman marriage.
A Concordia student told the newspaper that it was well known on campus that LGBTQ issues had caused divisions between the university and its parent organization.
Local media noted that the timing of the closure announcement was especially surprising because less than a week earlier, Concordia had held its annual community fund-raiser at the Hyatt Regency hotel in Portland, bringing in more than $355,000. Nothing was said at the event to indicate that the university’s closure would be announced within days.
Concordia University Foundation confirmed to KGW that all donors at the fundraising dinner would be offered refunds.
According to The Oregonian, the first some staff and faculty heard about a shutdown was when they were told at 8 a.m. on Feb. 10, and students were notified about an hour later.
Later in the week, the newspaper reported that Concordia student William Spaulding intends to sue the school, saying it misled students about its financial condition and left them without a way to graduate or directly transfer to another university. The draft of the class action suit alleges that school executives knew about declining enrollment and financial problems since last year.
Michael Fuller, attorney for Spaulding, charged Concordia executives with misleading students, and he called on the university to disclose what it had paid its executives this past year.
Concordia students walked out of their classes Feb. 13 and staged a sit-in at the president’s office to protest the closing. An organizer told KGW that the administration had failed to support and protect the students, staff and faculty.
Current tuition at Concordia is about $31,000, with food and housing increasing the total price to about $44,078. Ninety-eight percent of students get some sort of tuition break, The Oregonian reported.
Ries retired last year as president of Concordia University in Minnesota, He arrived in January as Concordia Portland’s second interm president.
Linnemann praised Ries for having “stepped into a difficult situation and for “sharing the realities with clarity and compassion.”