At the beginning of the 2022–2023 academic year, Concordia University Ann Arbor (CUAA) had the largest enrollment in the school’s history. The renaissance of CUAA is one of the truly great success stories of the LCMS, and it was accomplished because a lot of people worked together — deliberately, patiently, cooperatively — to make it happen. There is some irony in the fact that I spent 30 years at Concordia University Wisconsin (CUW) but am more frequently associated with this project than any other over the span of my career. Often I am given credit for “saving Ann Arbor.” Certainly, I was “in the room where it happened,” to borrow from Lin-Manuel Miranda’s famous musical, “Hamilton.” It was, however, a very large room, and scores of people deserve lots of credit for what transpired. This is consistent with my preferred approach to leadership: engage as many people as possible in the process, take advantage of a broad range of expertise, build as much consensus as we are able, and trust the Lord to work His will according to His purpose.
A few months before that record number of students arrived for the Fall semester, I was on campus for a couple of days during the Michigan District convention. At a reception one evening, a former CUW student approached me in a rather high state of agitation. Evidently there was some discussion on the convention floor about how the Mequon-Ann Arbor merger came to pass. He was troubled by what seemed to him to be some revisionist history surrounding the course of events. It was truly a team effort, I assured him, and the Church as the Body of Christ functions at her very best when the various members communicate, cooperate, and collaborate, giving us the opportunity to celebrate God’s good work among us.
Being an historian and keeper of personal journals, I think it is useful for us to consider some of the highlights of this story. After all, I had a front row seat in the room where it happened! My hope is that the very successful result for CUAA might be instructive for us as we face other large issues in the LCMS. Walking together, working together, we can do so much more together by bringing more of God’s people around the table to help make good things happen.
The initial conversation was just two people. President Tom Ahlersmeyer of CUAA and I sat in the airport In Portland, Oregon on an afternoon in late September. Following our Concordia University System (CUS) meeting, we were waiting for our flights home. The idea had been ruminating in my mind for a while. This was not an easy topic to broach. It was rather widely known that CUAA was struggling and equally evident that CUW was flourishing. In my journal on September 10, 2008, I happily reported that we had just received another $1 million gift toward the launch of our School of Pharmacy. Next I wrote, “Did I mention that I had a preliminary conversation with the President of Concordia Ann Arbor about us acquiring that school?” Was there a creative solution to this knotty problem? So it all began.
In my very next sentence I also wrote, “Did I mention that I had another conversation with the President of Concordia Irvine about possibly merging to give us a much stronger overall position and presence?” Contemplation about combining efforts and resources in CUS had been already on my mind. My good friend at Irvine, Jack Preus, and I met with each other and with our Board Chairs to discuss this possibility. In November 2008 Jack and I visited Bruce Nicholsen and John Gilbert in Minneapolis. They were, respectively, the executives at Lutheran Brotherhood and Aid Association for Lutherans before the merger to form Thrivent. We learned a lot from their story. “Of course,” I wrote afterward, “our interests are to discover if something like the Thrivent merger can be replicated in higher education … we wonder if a combined effort of two fairly strong, mostly like-minded institutions can do more together than each on its own.” Cooperation, collaboration, Concordia!
“Conflordia!” Even before any conversation about joining forces with another Concordia occurred, our leadership team and Board of Regents were giving serious consideration to establishing a second campus in Florida — a plan we dubbed “Conflordia.” Florida was a state growing by leaps and bounds. Not only was there no Lutheran college in close proximity, but few private, smaller Christian colleges existed in the state. Meetings with potential donors, visits to sites for possible land acquisition, and consultations with higher education leaders in Florida kept us very busy. Our interests were serious ones, and the CUW faculty was alerted to the possibility. The year 2008 ended with lots of irons in the fire — establishing a School of Pharmacy, considering a second location in Florida, discussing a merger with our California colleagues, and an initial proposal to acquire Concordia Ann Arbor were all on our minds.
Following our brief chat in Portland, Tom Ahlersmeyer and I met In February to explore possibilities. Concerning CUAA, I wrote in my journal, “The school is in a fair bit of distress …. No minimalist solution will work, in my opinion. I suggested to Tom that we plan for something big or nothing at all. It is now in our court to develop a proposal for a viable model ... The only way something will likely work,” I mused, “is for us to take responsibility for the success.” A few days later, the CUW Board of Regents met and the Ann Arbor question was broached formally for the first time. Reaction was generally positive. There was recognition that a lot of work had to be done and that a lot of stakeholders had to be convinced. It was not as if there was not enough to do on our own campus. The previous year, 2008, saw the world engulfed in a global financial crisis, and higher education was not immune. This hardly seemed like the best time to take on extra challenges. Yet, if we did not, it was unclear to us how Ann Arbor would be able to survive.
In my journal I remarked that the faculty and leadership team at CUW were mostly on board about CUAA. “A fairly widespread ‘can do’ attitude pervades our culture.” The Board, however, was more reluctant and did not wish to rush forward without careful and thorough analysis. The word we were getting was that Synod’s Board of Directors was also unsure that this was a workable solution. I could hardly fault them. “Frankly,” I admitted, “I’m not convinced it is a good idea. But I am also not convinced that we should neglect to try. It is worth a try.”
Which way to go? I wrestled with the question along with our leadership team and Board. There were plenty of good reasons for reticence. Yet, I wondered, reflecting on the Book of Esther, if CUW’s relatively favorable position prepared us “for such a time as this.” I thought about my alma mater, St. John’s College, closed in 1986 and how painful that was for “Johnnies” alumni. Certainly, there must have been other options. I was aware that around the same time in those days there were discussions about closing Concordia Milwaukee. Instead, something else was tried — something risky, to be sure — the campus was moved to Mequon. Here was an earlier story of people across the Church cooperating, collaborating, and eventually celebrating what was frequently described as the “Miracle of Mequon.” In my inaugural address I envisioned “beautiful solutions to ugly problems.” Might Ann Arbor be one of those?
Evidently not. In March 2009, our Regents and Foundation Board joined together in Phoenix for a retreat. Because we were going to discuss Ann Arbor the next day, we wanted to be sure we invited a Foundation Board member who lived nearby and encouraged him to attend. Pam, my assistant, called the man and told him that this was important because we intended to talk about the “merger.” He arrived and appeared unnerved. He thought Pam said we're going to talk about the “murder,” and he was very concerned. Maybe murder was not so far off. As the actual discussion unfolded, the collective wisdom of the assembly more-or-less killed the plan to go forward with any further merger dialogue — at least in the short term. There was too much else to occupy our energy and attention.
By the end of the calendar year, once again, we felt we had to say “no.” Ann Arbor’s President had resigned. Kurt Krueger, then the President of CUS, was asking us formally to intervene. We dragged our feet. Still enamored with the “Conflordia” idea, we doubted that we could simultaneously administer CUAA and open a new campus. What gnawed at me, however, was this question: Why did we suppose that we could be successful at establishing a successful Lutheran university from scratch in a region where few Lutherans resided but not in Ann Arbor where there was already a beautiful campus and more LCMS Lutherans in close proximity than anywhere else in the country? Good question. But as we entered 2010, I was not optimistic about an agreement to take on CUAA.
There was a change in synodical leadership in the middle of 2010. Matt Harrison was elected President of The Lutheran Church — Missouri Synod. The potential merger of the Concordias in Wisconsin and Michigan had already been a topic of conversation for nearly two years. As he assumed office, President Harrison had many things to consider, and this matter was not on his radar. Besides, the suggestion seemed to be losing steam. We pulled back, and CUAA found an interim President, Rusty Nichols, to assume leadership to help keep things afloat. He did an admirable job.
Ann Arbor refused to die, thank the Lord. It would not survive, however, without help. In February 2011, the interim President of the CUS, Al Borcherding, convened a meeting in Chicago to explore potential collaborations. Along with Ann Arbor and Mequon, Seward and River Forest were represented. The idea of partnering in some significant way would not die either. Nebraska and Chicago were sympathetic but unable to help. Could Mequon at least do something? After a few months of negotiation, including with our own governing Board, we announced a “strategic alliance” between CUW and CUAA. Not a merger — we would be offering time but not be infusing any money — but we assumed the role of senior partner in a relationship between the two campuses.
In retrospect, although we tried to cushion ourselves in the event of failure, from this step forward there really was no turning back. Still, there would be no going forward without a lot of investment and support from many others. I was not entirely sure that we could count on help outside our immediate circle. Even so, “It is time to step forward in faith,” I wrote, “and to lead with courage rather than tread too carefully around the edges.” Yet, the fact remained that we could not simply go forward on our own or do this by ourselves.
In November 2011, many of us convened in Ann Arbor and gathered upstairs in the Manor — the room where it happened. No one who was there will likely soon forget the meeting. The conversation / negotiation was frank but fraternal. If I worried that others across the Church would not step up to meet this moment along with us, my concerns were unfounded. The target was to formulate a plan to erase the debt of CUAA so that a plan could begin financially with a clean slate. Provided all of the various constituent Boards and entities approved, CUW would then assume ongoing responsibility for operations at CUAA and gain control of its physical assets. Representatives from the Concordia University System, the Lutheran Church Extension Fund, the Michigan District, and the Michigan Church Extension Fund agreed collectively to propose the absorption of nearly $10 million toward that goal, a figure matched by CUW. There were other issues; but once a plan was set for the financials, we were able to go back to our various Boards to seek ratification. I also agreed to reach out to the Indiana, Ohio, and English Districts at their conventions the following summer to solicit their support and contribution.
Once again, our Board met as part of a retreat, not unlike the one in Phoenix in 2009. This time the setting was Naples, Florida, and CUAA was at the top of our agenda. Much had transpired in the three years since the previous Board “murdered” the idea of the merger. In the days leading up to the Naples meeting I remained unsure what might be the outcome. Hours of work and due diligence brought a recommendation from our leadership team to go forward. In response to my request, President Harrison and President David Maier of the Michigan District penned thoughtful letters urging our Regents to opt for the proposed plan. Even so, as I confided in my journal, “the ebb and flow of opinion seems to be moving away from this big step.” Trying to get a read on the room of people in Naples, I knew there were differences of opinion. Some members of our Foundation stepped down when the Regents voted in the affirmative. Communication, cooperation, and collaboration will not always bring consensus or concordia — not even at Concordia. But, walking together we took a big step. Working together we were able to move forward.
Over the next several months our partners across the Church also received endorsement from their Boards. The Districts within CUAA’s near orbit generously pledged their moral and financial support. It was not until the Spring of 2013 that the Higher Learning Commission approved the proposal to merge Concordia University Wisconsin and Concordia University Ann Arbor. Finally, on July 1, 2013, at the LCMS Youth Gathering in New Orleans, I stood before 25,000 young people and announced officially that CUWAA was a reality. Celebration!
In the early 1970s the Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai was asked a question about the impact of the 18th century French Revolution. His rather famous response was “Too soon to say.” On October 11, 2011, I had these thoughts: “Maybe 10 years ago what we envision right now would have been hard to imagine. Perhaps 10 years from now we will look back on moments like this one and rejoice that we stepped up to the challenge.” More than a decade has past since the merger between the Concordia campuses in Wisconsin and Michigan. It is too soon to say what the lasting impact will be. This much, however, might be said already: In the lives of scores of students and in the lives of scores of others who have been touched by these Concordians, the impact is eternal. There have been students brought to faith in Christ and baptized at the font in the Chapel of the Holy Trinity. There have been hundreds of church workers educated, prepared, and sent to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ in churches, schools, and mission fields. There have been thousands of students who have grown in mind, body, and spirit for service to Christ in the Church and in the world. It’s too soon to measure the eternal impact of the merger. I rejoice that we were not too late.
“We” were not too late. “We” were on time when finally called to the room where things happened. “We” were lots of people from across the Church who brought insight and perspective, expertise and critical thinking to this endeavor. “We” prayed for God’s help and for His will to be done, and “we” humbly made ourselves available to be part of the process. “We” did not always agree, but “we” communicated, collaborated, and cooperated with each other with patience and perseverance trying to find a beautiful solution to an ugly problem. Praise God from who all blessings flow. “Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity,” (Psalm 133:1).
Regrettably, we have since lost our only historically Black college in Alabama; we have lost our strategic university presence in the Pacific Northwest where Christian witness is sorely lacking; and we have lost our higher education foothold in arguably the most important city in the world — New York. Here were schools that previously survived decades of enormous and complex challenges. After all of this are we now simply out of solutions? Do we lack patience and perseverance? Where is our creativity and commitment? Our colleagues in Texas have determined that their best chance of maintaining the mission of Lutheran higher education is outside of the CUS. They would also tell you, along with others in Selma, Portland, and Bronxville, that it did not necessarily have to be this way. I agree. Unless things change, however, it will not take another decade to see more discord, more decline. Only a few will be left in the room when that happens.
In the musical, “Hamilton,” the character Aaron Burr was desperate to be “in the room where it happened.” He perceived that room to be a particularly privileged place where only a select few insiders were allowed entry. Too often in our circles, that room is far too small. Too few voices with too narrow a perspective and too little expertise try to tackle challenges that are too big. It does not have to be this way. Walking together, all of us, we can do better. Working together, all of us, we will do better. I know that from experience.