A Few Thoughts in Response to Some Questions & Concerns Regarding Ann Arbor

With the news and recent developments regarding the Ann Arbor campus of CUWAA, I know there are lots of passionate concerns and numerous questions about the future, not only among the current students and their families, but also among the many alumni, friends, and supporters of the University here within our Indiana District. And to be sure, the Indiana District as a whole was supportive of the effort when Concordia Wisconsin took on the campus in July of 2013, and so has a more than passive or passing interest in the current situation and all that it involves.

As an advisory member of the CUWAA Board of Regents, I’ve had something of a front row seat to the conversations and developments of the past eight months. I’ve deliberately chosen not to speak “out of school” concerning these matters, out of respect for the fact that the Board needs to speak with one voice, either by way of its chairman or through the president’s office. I’ve also wanted to avoid any risk or impression of breaking confidentiality in regards to the Board. But it seems appropriate that I should offer a few thoughts at this point, in order to answer some of the questions that I have been asked, and to alleviate some of the concerns that various people have.

Please note that I am not writing on behalf of the CUWAA Board of Regents, but rather as the president of the Indiana District, especially for the benefit of those under my ecclesiastical care.

The primary question and concern that I have heard and seen from multiple people over the past five months is, “Why the urgency of action in regards to the Ann Arbor campus at this time?” It has come as a shock to many, seemingly out of the blue, and in apparent contrast to indications that all was going well. I understand and sympathize with the confusion and frustration. But the truth is that current circumstances have been developing for some time, to such an extent that the University is really behind the 8 ball now, and the sooner steps are taken, the better, in the hopes that both campuses can survive and thrive into the future. Significant actions are being taken on both campuses, but the situation in Ann Arbor is more urgent, the necessary changes greater. The goal is to act now, before it is too late to turn the tide.

Anyone aware of the larger context of higher education in the United States is already aware of the present and looming challenges facing colleges and universities of all kinds across the nation. A couple of “demographic cliffs” are on the horizon, which will further amplify those challenges for everyone, including our Concordias. Those are stark and simple realities, and we cannot wait until later to address them. Seemingly at odds with those concerns, however, is the impressive increase in enrollment on the Ann Arbor campus in recent years. On the surface, that appears to be a very positive indication of a healthy and thriving college; and of course we give thanks for each and every student! The dire problem has been that the cost per student has been as great or greater than the revenue received in tuition per student. In other words, the greater number of students at Ann Arbor has actually not improved the financial position of the campus, because every extra dollar taken in has been spent on additional expenses. Meanwhile, the infrastructure of the campus has been strained to a critical point, due to years of deferred maintenance.

The financial situation at Ann Arbor has been an ongoing concern, and it has become urgent, lest the entire University – including both campuses – go under. In the ten years from 2013 to 2023, the Ann Arbor campus lost $35 million (and another $13 million in depreciation expenses). Only one of those ten years did not involve a significant operational deficit, due to the sale of property on the edge of the campus. Otherwise, CUW has covered the persistent deficit at Ann Arbor, in addition to capital improvements, for a total of $90 million in support over the past decade.

For those who are interested, the financial circumstances and challenges are summarized and discussed in the “CUAA Task Force Report,” submitted to the Board of Regents at the end of May: https://www.cuaa.edu/about/future/_assets/report.pdf. That report also includes a look at other factors involved in considering the prospect of the Ann Arbor campus becoming its own independent university of the Concordia University System. If you’ve not yet read the report, I encourage you to do so, as it does a good job of identifying the situation. It also makes it clear that the financial obstacles and accreditation requirements do not invite any realistic hope that the Ann Arbor campus could resume independent operation as a separate university.

It is worth noting that issues pertaining to “Lutheran Identity and Mission” on the Ann Arbor campus were not viewed as insurmountable to the prospect of independence, nor were they a significant factor in the recent decisions of the Board of Regents. Both strengths and weaknesses in this area were noted by the task force subcommittee on which I was privileged to serve, along with suggestions for ways in which the weaknesses could appropriately be addressed over the next four or five years, whether as an independent university or as a campus of CUWAA.

The issues raised with respect to Lutheran Identity and Mission were identified on the basis of the objective standards recently established by the Concordia University System. Those are the same standards that will be used in the evaluation of each and all of the Concordia Universities. Regarding those objective standards, I find them to be very sound and solidly Lutheran, and not at odds with our Biblical and Confessional commitments in theology and practice; indeed, they are rooted precisely in those doctrinal standards and aim to serve those commitments in practice. For those who may be interested, CLICK HERE for a link to the “Lutheran Identity and Mission Outcome Standards” (LIMOS).

Now, I should say that I recognize and acknowledge that some of the communication over the past four or five months has at times been confusing, misleading, and unfortunate. I regret that, because I have witnessed some of the consequent fallout, which has not been helpful to anyone. Nevertheless, as I have had the opportunity to watch firsthand the efforts of the CUWAA Board of Regents to carry out its fiduciary responsibilities, what I have witnessed are men and women of good will – acting in good faith – confronting real challenges and grappling with difficult and emotional decisions to the best of their abilities, on the basis of the facts and information in hand. And what I have consistently observed in President Ankerberg and his administrative team are sincere and conscientious efforts to serve and care for the University – on both campuses – with a view toward its positive and productive future. You can find an outline and a broad-sketch, big-picture overview of the strategic plan here: https://www.cuaa.edu/about/strategic-plan.html.

I readily understand that many people are dismayed by the recent Board of Regents decisions, and I respect the fact that Christian brothers and sisters of good will – acting in good faith – can dislike and disagree with those decisions. Christ our Lord grant the perfect peace and comfort of His Holy Word and precious promises to one and all who are distraught and discouraged by all of these hard things, especially to the students and their families, the faculty and staff, whose lives and future plans have been disrupted and become uncertain. I am praying for you, in the sure and certain confidence that our merciful and great High Priest will never leave you nor forsake you! And I simply ask of one and all, in the faith, hope, and charity of the same Lord, Jesus Christ, that you not lose heart or despair, nor allow the devil to embitter you against your neighbors, but bear with one another in love, forgiving each other, as God in Christ forgives you.

For a statement from the Chairman of the Board of Regents, Rev. John Berg, along with other information, updates, and announcements, including a recent clarification on the continuation of church work programs at CUAA, please see: https://www.cuaa.edu/about/future/index.html.