Concordia: More questions than answers in closure of Portland campus
Students say they're frantically searching for new schools following the Feb. 10 announcement that Concordia University will close this spring, eventually selling off the 24-acre campus in northeast Portland.
The private, Christian university faces a class-action lawsuit from students who say the university duped them by offering classes and degree programs even though it knew operations would cease in the near future.
In its announcement Monday, Feb. 10, the university's interim president, the Rev. Thomas Ries, said Concordia's board of regents voted Feb. 7 to close at the end of the spring 2020 academic semester, due to "years of mounting financial challenges, and a challenging and changing educational landscape."
Students like Jordan Ranum say they were caught off guard by the news.
"They had sent an email that I received at about 6:30 that morning saying that there was an urgent meeting at 10 a.m. and that classes were cancelled for the day," Ranum, a business major at the college, said of the message sent to students Monday morning.
But like many of his peers, Ranum found out about his school's closure not from the school, but from news reports.
The message sent to students didn't mention that the school was closing.
"I was still sleeping and when I woke up, I didn't instantly check my email, so I had no idea a meeting was even happening. And then a little before 10:30, I'm scrolling through Facebook and I see a news story about it," Ranum said.
Ranum will be able to graduate just in time, but many of his friends won't.
Soon after the announcement about Concordia, private and public universities rushed to recruit prospective transfer students.
Fellow private Christian institutions like George Fox University, Warner Pacific College, Pacific Lutheran and Corban University offered expedited application processes and dangled scholarships ranging from $500 to $6,000 to incoming Concordia students.
Portland State University also stood ready to help students transfer, touting itself as the lowest cost university in the Portland metro area. On Friday, Feb. 14, Eastern Oregon University announced that "it stands with Concordia students and will help them however we can to achieve their educational goals."
Since Monday, dozens of students have reached out to an attorney about legal action.
The current pending lawsuit against Concordia, filed by attorney Michael Fuller on behalf of student William Spaulding, alleges unlawful financial practices, saying the university's years of financial challenges were not disclosed to students when they applied and paid tuition fees to the college expecting to complete their degrees there.
"Concordia University misled hundreds of students about its financial condition, and collected tuition in 2020 that students would not have paid had the students known the truth about Concordia University's looming closure," the complaint states.
Some of those students have been in this situation before.
In 2018, after Marylhurst University closed its doors to students, many of them turned to Concordia to continue their education.
Auriana Cook got lucky. She had just graduated from Marylhurst in 2017 before the school shut down. She started graduate coursework toward a teaching degree at Concordia, where she currently attends. Now, she's left doubting her pursuit of higher education.
"The announcement came abruptly on Monday with no plan to 'teach-out' current students — leaving many, myself included, scrambling for a plan 'B,'" Cook wrote in a letter to the editor to the Tribune. "Experiencing two private universities mishandle their budgets, refuse to offer legitimate teach-out programs, and take money from students they know will not graduate, is two too many in my short academic career. I'm left asking if teaching programs in the area will accept my credits and allow me to graduate on the same timeline."
Aside from the lawsuit, the university's foundation has donors to answer to.
Three days before Concordia's board of regents voted to shut the college down, it held an awards gala and fundraiser featuring rapper and actor Common as a keynote speaker. The event brought in $355,000 in money that was said to be used for scholarships and the college's 3 to PhD program. The university declined to answer direct questions about how the money will now be distributed, or how much Common's appearance fees were, if any.
On its website, Concordia indicated that the $355,000 raised on Feb. 4 would go "to support scholarships for students in the 2019-20 academic year and the 3 to PhD program."
The 3 to PhD program is a partnership with Portland Public Schools, Trillium Family Services, Kaiser Permanente, and Basics Market that puts Concordia's students inside Faubion K-8, where they gain hands-on experience in their field of study.
Students benefit from wrap-around services to support them on their journey from elementary school, all the way to college, said Jonathan Garcia, PPS's chief engagement officer and co-chair of the 3 to PhD program.
"The idea is that the professors of higher ed are working in collaboration with our teachers at Faubion to improve instruction and pedagogy," Garcia explained. "The whole idea was to embed them inside the building."
Faubion School, which serves pre-schoolers through eighth graders, is operated by PPS by has a close working relationship with Concordia. Concordia staff maintain offices throughout the building.
PPS staff say Faubion will operate as usual, and they are working to ensure no interruption in other services.
Upon closure, the 24-acre campus and land will be returned to the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod and one of its lenders, the Lutheran Church Extension Fund.
Developers take note
The Concordia site has classrooms, student housing, a library and green space, making it ideal for another school to move in. One developer who did not wish to be named said that the problem was, anyone who wanted anything other than an institutional use (another school) would face resistance from the neighbors, since neighbors generally prefer things as they are.
"I think this took people by surprise, including some of my friends who work there," Jordan Schnitzer, head of Harsh Investment Properties, told the Tribune. "This is a strong market, there's a high demand for property. It would be nice to see it repurposed."
Schnitzer said he was enthusiastic about immediate reuse. "Obviously as an educational facility, but we could do something to help the homeless or less fortunate people."
Schnitzer owns the former Wapato jail, which has sat empty since it was built in 2003.
Schnitzer suggested Portland State University, Lewis & Clark College or one of the provincial schools like University of Oregon or Oregon State University could benefit from more campus space.
"I don't know the ownership; maybe Concordia could do a long-term lease?" Schnitzer wondered. "There are lots of ways to do this. Where there's a will, there's a way."
Kira Cador, president of local developer Rembold, has a daughter getting a master's in teaching degree at Concordia right now, so her family is affected. Cador wrote in an email: "The aspirational idea is for Portland Public Schools to see if there is an opportunity to build on the 3 to PhD program (at Concordia and Faubion K-8) and bring more educational experts and partnerships into the fold and create a center for excellence that is establishing and teaching the best ways to close the opportunity gap for good."
Cador said such an endeavor "would involve big picture, outside-of-the-box thinking on partnerships and funding. … The zoning will be tough to change in the short term to create other than an educational or medical campus there."
Cador added, "I am on the board of a non-profit that is solely focused on closing the achievement gap for kids of color, KairosPDX. We have been kicking around the idea of a being part of a larger educational effort to help teach and share our methods to create systemic change."
Popular sports venues
Among the questions raised with the school's closing is: What becomes of the campus athletic facilities?
Hilken Community Stadium has been the home of Cavaliers soccer, baseball and softball since it opened in fall 2011. It also is heavily used by community organizations for youth sports practices and clinics.
The sports facilities include the stadium, LCEF Court (home of the Concordia basketball and volleyball teams) and the unique Concordia Throws Center. Located off campus, the throws center opened in 2006 and is used by high school and college athletes from around the region, along with Olympic athletes, who compete in the discus, javelin, hammer or shot put.
With high demand for fields for youth and adult sports, losing the multi-use, artificial turf stadium facility would be a blow to the Northeast Portland community.
Matt Martin, who has been Concordia's vice president for intercollegiate athletics only since Dec. 9, said he understands the significance of Hilken Community Stadium to the community.
"I would hate to see it redeveloped into something else," Martin said. "You would love to see the equipment and facilities go to help this community."
United PDX soccer club was the first community partner to contribute to the stadium project and has had more than 1,000 players per year train at the facility, according to Ryan Youngblood, United PDX executive director. Youth soccer teams train at the stadium Monday through Friday and will continue to have access to the stadium through the end of April.
"The school has been a great partner for us and has provided a home for our players to train and play games over the years," Youngblood said. "We certainly hope that we can find a way to keep the facility in use for the greater good of the kids that we serve in our community and we are open to exploring options to make that happen."
Martin, the Concordia athletic director, said he doesn't know what the future holds for the facilities, or for Concordia's sports equipment. Those decisions will be made by the new owners of the property. Martin said that he has already heard from one local high school asking if it can have Concordia's soccer goals.
The baseball and softball section of the stadium, known as Porter Field, is especially popular because the artificial surface means fewer rainouts. Martin said that Western Oregon University baseball, a Great Northwest Athletic Conference rival, has played a significant number of its home games at Porter Field when its own field wasn't playable.
In the past, the stadium has been used by some Portland Interscholastic League programs. The only Portland Public Schools program that has regularly used a Concordia facility during the current school year is the Grant High dance team.
Central Catholic High baseball has played games at Porter Field, but does not have any games scheduled there this spring.
Portland Parks & Recreation does not currently use Concordia facilities for its programs, according to spokesperson Mark Ross.
"We would be happy to look into having more synthetic turf sports fields; but it's too early to say whether or not we will pursue any property purchase from Concordia," Ross said in an email.
Martin said that prior to the announcement that Concordia would close he was talking with organizations, including Sport Oregon, about expanding the number of activities at the stadium.
Martin said the facility is ideal for a wide variety of events, including lacrosse and seven-on-seven football.
Reporters Courtney Vaughn, Joseph Gallivan and Paul Danzer contributed to this story.
You count on us to stay informed and we depend on you to fund our efforts. Quality local journalism takes time and money. Please support us to protect the future of community journalism.