Last August, dozens of prospective students and their parents toured the Northeast Portland campus of Concordia University. They saw dorm rooms and a recently dedicated central quad, the glass facade of the administration building and the new turf athletic fields.
Questions about the school’s financial problems, driven by lagging enrollment, were quickly downplayed by university officials.
“We've had a residential community of about 500 for the last few years, and we expect that to continue,” Madeline Turnock, a spokesperson for Concordia, told OPB last August. “If anything, our number of traditional ‘on ground’ incoming freshmen is growing.”
Yet within six months, Concordia leaders announced the university was closing.
One story for the church, another for students
Concordia’s explanation for the sudden closure announcement pointed to financial problems. In short, less money was coming in due to falling enrollment, while costs were mounting, much of that due to construction debt.
The problems were no secret to the authorities at the Lutheran Church who supervise the Concordia University System, including the campus in Portland. Students, however, say they were repeatedly reassured that the university’s financial condition was fine.
Last year, as OPB contacted colleges facing enrollment declines, Linfield College and Willamette University pointed to published "common data sets" — uniform information created by the College Board and other higher education organizations going back multiple years, tracking admission, enrollment, financial and other information. But Concordia hadn't published those in years. Instead, it pointed to its most recent single-year survey, which the U.S Department of Education mandates for any college receiving federal money, called the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System, or IPEDS.
Data the school provided last May suggested the university was turning around. The stats showed that after having a combined graduate and undergraduate enrollment of 7,182 students in 2015 and 4,869 students in 2017, Concordia's enrollment was rebounding. Officials said Concordia's 2018 enrollment was 5,815, including its largest undergraduate population in four years. They pointed to the university's "Vision 2024" growth plan, which promised among other goals that Concordia would "serve an increasing number of qualified and diverse students who respect its values and mission."
University officials glossed over the consolidation last year of several courses of study, including English, history and global studies. The changes were downplayed publicly and to students such as Concordia senior Lauren Harris, who appeared last week on OPB's "Think Out Loud." Harris said she and her classmates were reassured that the program changes were part of a strategic reorientation to prioritize student interests, rather than a sign of financial trouble.
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“I believed they were being forthright in what they were telling us and how they were restructuring the school,” Harris said.
But at the same time, the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, the church's conservative branch that oversees the Concordia University System, was receiving other messages from their Portland campus.
A year and a half before university leaders dropped the bombshell that Concordia was closing, church authorities were looking for ways to remedy the university’s financial situation.
According to minutes from an August 2018 Synod board meeting, church leaders returned from a visit to Portland flagging the need for a "financially sound situation" from meetings on campus. The following February — a year ago — the Synod's board minutes suggest church authorities had learned enough to discuss a response. The February 2019 minutes suggest creating a "watchlist" for the university in Portland and another Concordia college in Bronxville, New York, "to elevate monitoring activities with regard to the schools to reduce the likelihood of financial or enrollment surprise."
In board minutes from last September, as students arrived, the problems at Concordia campuses in Bronxville and Portland became sufficiently critical that the Missouri Synod’s board members discussed sending financial experts out to intervene.
"[Board members supported] the importance of having the board's financial expertise to visit Concordia institutions at Bronxville and Portland, both of which have presented recently with financial issues," according to the September 2019 meeting minutes.
The Missouri Synod’s reluctance to intervene
Lauren Harris enrolled at Concordia under duress. She was forced to find a new college to attend after Marylhurst University, a private college on the edge of Lake Oswego, abruptly closed in 2017. As a business student who had already been through one college closure, she wanted to be sure of her next move. Harris said she researched and that the college's connection to a larger institution — the Lutheran Church — gave her confidence.
“We did understand that they were receiving kind of a lifeline from the Lutheran mothership and also they have the largest student body for private universities in the state,” Harris said.
The nine colleges that comprise the Concordia University system are directly affiliated with and governed by the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod. Over the last two years, the Synod’s board has looked closely at the Portland university’s finances and approved financial steps to benefit the college.
But the Synod and university system also have a particular approach to education, which includes “to take the Good News of life in Jesus Christ to a world desperately in need of hearing and believing in Him.” And when it comes to Concordia University-Portland, the Synod’s religious views repeatedly came into conflict with the less-conservative leanings of Concordia-Portland.
On campus, university officials speak of being a faith-based institution, but one that is open to all students. On a tour last summer, campus pastor Bo Baumeister framed religion on campus as being up to individual students.
“You get what you're looking for. If you want to come to a Christian school and develop relationships, deep ones with other Christians, if you want to deepen your faith, discipleship, yeah, you can do that here,” Baumeister said.
“If you go, ‘All that hocus-pocus, I'm just here to get my degree,’ you can do that too.”
The pastor said students would have to talk about religion as part of their undergraduate coursework.
“We have discussions that are challenging. You know, we'll talk about abortion. We'll talk about issues of immigration, the LGBTQ population,” he said.
But the university’s approach to the LGBTQ community — including the mere existence of Concordia’s “Queer Straight Alliance student group — has been an irritation to church leaders in St. Louis.”
"A club advocating homosexuality is not possible, under the Constitution and Bylaws of the Synod, on a Concordia campus," the Synod's president, Matthew Carl Harrison, said at a February 2018 meeting, according to board minutes.
The Synod records showed that church leaders were tracking the blow-by-blow on campus: from Concordia’s board of regents shutting down the Queer Straight Alliance to media attention that led the university president to “reauthorize” it.
According to the meeting minutes, the Synod president stepped in:
“President Harrison, in dialogue with local authorities, reported a significant step toward positive resolution was ‘in the offing.’”
At times, financial discussions involving Concordia University-Portland overlapped with critiques of the campus’ approach to gay students.
In August 2018, along with prioritizing a “financially sound situation,” the Rev. Dean Wenthe, president of the Concordia University System, reported that he “found faculty eager to maintain their connection with the Synod and to stand up to the severe cultural challenges prevalent in their area.”
The concerns around university leadership, finances and gay rights collided as the 2019-20 school year began.
In September 2019, the board minutes said, "In Portland, regents have been asked to address issues of Lutheran identity and governance before a permanent appointment [of university president] proceeds."
The minutes added, parenthetically, "[P]rogress is reported.”
At its next meeting in November, the Synod board approved several financial steps for Concordia, including a $4 million extended line of credit and a bond purchase/refund agreement worth $5.2 million.
But the Synod also pressed the university on issues of gender and sexual identity.
“Resolved, that the chairman of the board inform the leadership of the Concordia University System and Concordia University, Portland,” read the November 2019 minutes, “that it will not again approve any financial action for the benefit of the university until the university has substantively addressed the issues regarding the Gender and Sexuality Resource Center and brought its articles and bylaws back into conformity with the requirements of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod.”
The Synod denies that the resolution concerning the Gender and Sexuality Resource Center was a factor in the closure of Concordia University-Portland, referred to by system administrators as CUP, according to an email from the Synod’s director of communications David Strand.
“The language you have excerpted from a resolution passed by The Lutheran Church — Missouri Synod Board of Directors in November 2019 was not a factor in CUP’s closure,” Strand said. “The resolution you drew from was supportive of CUP’s stated financing efforts.”
In his message, Strand reiterated that the reason Concordia-Portland closed was “due to ‘mounting financial challenges, and a challenging and changing educational landscape’.”
Abrupt closure draws lawsuit, calls for transparency
Concordia University-Portland has churned through multiple leaders in the last few years, with interim president Tom Ries in just his second month. Ries, a finance administrator, said he saw problems right away.
“I began looking at the financials already back in December, before even coming here,” he said last week. “I will say the hair started to stand up on the back of my head.”
Since the closure announcement, students have expressed outrage that their education is being cut short, some with tens of thousands of dollars invested and no clear path to complete their degrees. Attorney Michael Fuller told OPB’s "Think Out Loud" he’s heard from more than a hundred Concordia students, some of whom, like Lauren Harris, sought refuge at the Lutheran college after fleeing Marylhurst in 2017.
“Right now, we’re asking for tuition refunds,” Fuller said. “ Anyone who’s not able to graduate and had tuition collected from them under false pretenses, we’re asking for a full refund.”
Concordia’s abrupt closure has also attracted the attention of top state officials. As a private, nonprofit college in Oregon, there’s a limit to what state regulators can do — a point that Ben Cannon, executive director at the Higher Education Coordinating Commission, is quick to make.
Cannon suggested state officials might need to look into the Concordia situation if officials were hiding financial information about the university that students and families should know.
“One of the questions that the situation raises is about the role of public reporting, monitoring, transparency,” Cannon said.
The leader of Oregon’s higher education agency said he’s had national-level discussions about how to deal with private colleges and the need for public sharing of information.
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“I think we have work to do, especially in an era where looking nationally, looking at demographic trends, this may not be the last school in Oregon to face this kind of situation,” Cannon said.
“I’m in conversation with the accrediting commission that has a role to play, the U.S. Department of [Education] and staff there, which also has a role to play to understand how we can create a better network of responsibilities and relationships to try to prevent these kinds of closures ... or if that's not possible, at least, ease their impact on students.”
For the time being, financial transparency is taking a back seat to immediate concerns. Several thousand students are looking for ways to complete their degrees. A number of private and public universities have stepped up to help, but state officials worry some students will fall through the cracks.
Public universities from the Willamette Valley to La Grande and private colleges from McMinnville to Seattle have offered to facilitate transfers from Concordia, some of them with generous tuition breaks.
Cannon said he’s “cautiously optimistic” about the steps he’s seeing from Concordia and other institutions.
“At the same time, we also know that Concordia is unlikely to find suitable arrangements for every single student,” Cannon said.
“I think we are deeply concerned about the impact that this will have on some students, even if there are options on paper, but for whom it doesn't quite work out.”