President Harrison: A Faithful Leader Supporting Colleges and Universities in their Mission

MarkSternHeadshot2016 Resolution 7-01 asks the Synod in convention to commend the presidents of the Concordia University System (CUS) colleges and universities for their faithful leadership in the preparation and endorsement of a set of Lutheran Identity Standards. These standards, unanimously endorsed by the CUS presidents, are intended to show, both qualitatively and quantitatively, support for Christian teaching, and the Lutheran confession and practice of the church.
I serve as a member and now as vice-chair of the Board of Regents of Concordia University Chicago (CUC). In that role, I have seen another faithful leader, our Synod President, Rev. Dr. Matthew Harrison, work during the last triennium to support the CUS colleges and universities, including CUC, in our shared mission. The following thoughts are my personal observations only, and are not written on behalf of the Board or CUC.

I first saw President Harrison working “up close” when he visited CUC during our search for a new university president. In the last few years, three CUS institutions, including CUC, have successfully elected new presidents. In each case, President Harrison worked with the respective Board of Regents with the result that it selected a president who met that school’s unique needs. I can only speak to the process at CUC, but in his time with us President Harrison showed his understanding of three critical facts about the CUS institutions: (1) they are a mission field, (2) they are a tent-making mission field, and (3) their connection to the Synod helps them keep the good confession of Christ as the heart of their mission in a hostile world.

First, the CUS is a mission field, because for a number of years, none of our colleges or universities has had a majority of LCMS students, or even close. Likewise, many faculty and staff are not LCMS, and in graduate programs, the vast majority of students, faculty, and staff are not LCMS. Even among LCMS students in the CUS, most are preparing for what Concordia Nebraska president Dr. Brian Friedrich describes as “world work” (compared with church work) vocations. Of traditional undergraduate students at CUS institutions, just under 11% overall are in church work programs.

President Harrison has stated that the CUS schools are “lights in a dark world”. Church work remains integral to many of the CUS schools, but it is no longer possible to focus solely or even primarily on church work. That would ignore the critical need for people with a quality Christian education to serve in a wide variety of secular vocations. That’s thoroughly Lutheran, because God works through each of us, in whatever vocation – even lawyers – to care for his people. The growth of the CUS into new areas of education gives our CUS institutions a tremendous opportunity to share the Gospel with those not of our confession. At CUC, that mission field includes students from countries around the world, including some where we cannot send missionaries. Through the CUS, the world comes to us.
Second, the CUS is a tent-making mission field, because over the past 40 years, the institutions have had to generate almost all of their own financial resources to operate. (The significant exception has been Concordia College Alabama (Selma), to which the Synod has generously given six to eight million dollars over the last several years.) This means creating innovative programs, a field in which CUC has been a leader. It also means dealing with the ever-increasing complexity of accreditation, financial aid programs administered by the federal and state governments, and other requirements. President Harrison has worked with our administration, the CUS Board, the Synod Board of Directors, and Synod staff to ensure that Synod requirements don’t adversely affect CUC’s ability to meet our obligations in this environment.

Third (but most importantly), President Harrison has provided leadership to help the CUS remain faithful. He formed a “think tank” focused on defining Lutheran identity in 21st century higher education. He has spoken boldly in the public square, testifying before Congress in support of our religious liberty. He encouraged us to call a president who would serve, not just as an administrative head of CUC, but as our spiritual head, recognizing that spiritual leadership is the first task of an institution president.

President Harrison also recognizes that “we are but a court decision or two away from a scenario where the federal government could eliminate our ability to participate in federal student loan programs, and thereby quickly make it impossible for our schools to survive.” (see Today’s Business) That is not alarmism, but reality. It would be foolish and poor stewardship to bury our head in the sand; we must study and prepare for what is likely to confront us. I know that President Harrison loves our Concordia system, and will not surrender any of our CUS institutions without a fight. I am thankful for his steady and balanced leadership that I have observed in his dealings with CUC and higher education issues in general.

Mark O. Stern is an attorney in private practice in Chicago, Illinois. He is a member at St. Paul, Brookfield, Illinois (NID), has served his congregations, districts, and Synod in various capacities, and currently serves as a Synod-elected member of the Board of Regents of Concordia University Chicago (River Forest), where he is vice chairman. He is a frequent speaker on legal topics affecting the church. All views expressed are his own, and do not represent the views of Concordia Chicago, its board, or his law firm, “nor are they to be taken as legal advice in any matter.”

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