The Concordia University of Edmonton’s announcement in April that it will no longer be religiously based reflects what the university has been for decades: a publicly supported institution that does not serve one particular constituency, said the university’s president, Gerald Krispin.
What began 95 years ago as a small religious institution founded by the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod, offering young men a path to becoming church ministers, is now a school that receives nearly half of its funding from the Alberta government – with more funds at stake – and one whose student and faculty population has become more diverse.
According to Dr. Krispin, in his ninth year as president and also a professor of religious studies at Concordia, only 83 students currently identify as Lutheran, a number that is surpassed by the school’s Sikh and Muslim populations. The majority of Concordia students who declare a religious denomination are Roman Catholic, and eight percent of the student body of nearly 2,000 is self-declared indigenous. “To provide that opportunity for inclusion, you cannot focus on one particular faith perspective,” Dr. Krispin said.
“Concordia has been practically functioning as a public institution with a public outlook, and this decision was just meant to say, ‘Let’s just call a spade a spade,’” Dr. Krispin said. “People would come say, ‘You know, you’re not really very Christian are you?’ Well, we have chapels, but most universities have chapels, right? Most universities have prayer rooms and have these services for students with certain needs or desires. So we have those, but to define ourselves as being predominantly or definitively that was very problematic.”
Dr. Krispin said that Concordia does not require students to adhere to a statement of faith and it has been years since faculty have been required to make a faith commitment to the Lutheran denomination. There are at least four member institutions of Universities Canada (publisher of University Affairs) that have a faith statement or related code of conduct: Trinity Western University in Langley, B.C.; The King’s University in Edmonton; Canadian Mennonite University in Winnipeg; and Redeemer University College in Ancaster, Ont.
In recent years, Concordia has faced cuts to provincial funding and an uphill climb to financial stability, given a tough fiscal climate. In its 2012-2015 institutional plan, it was noted that “a grave concern for Concordia is that a nearly decade-long trend of excellent student retention and transfers into the institution that had served to offset lower first-year enrolments has been reversed.” Meanwhile, the university has also committed to investing “significant resources” in a strategy to recruit more international students.
The university’s two main sources of revenue in 2015 were student tuition and provincial funding, at roughly 44 percent each, according to the president, plus revenues from ancillary services. Fundraising adds about $500,000 more per year to a $30-million annual budget.
In response to Concordia’s decision to cease being a religious institution, which was finalized at a board meeting last November, the president of the Lutheran Church-Canada, Robert Bugbee, told local media that the church was disappointed and blindsided by the lack of consultation, which Dr. Krispin acknowledged and said was necessary to avoid divisiveness.
The Lutheran Church-Canada’s financial contributions to the university have declined over the years, and last year it did not issue an annual grant of roughly $100,000 to Concordia, leaving the university with about $30,000 in donations from church congregations and alumni. Though the church had indicated that its withdrawal of funding was a temporary measure, the B.C.-Alberta division of the church was recently granted an extension of bankruptcy protection under the federal Companies’ Creditor Arrangement Act.
In February, following the decision by Concordia’s board of governors to secularize, Dr. Krispin resigned from the clergy of the Lutheran Church-Canada. In an open letter, he wrote that he has “been made aware that [he has] lost ‘all credibility’ within Lutheran Church-Canada” and that his roles as president of Concordia and as pastor of the Lutheran Church-Canada need to be made separate, even as he departs from his role as president in little more than a year.
According to Dr. Krispin, changes to Concordia’s mission have been a few years coming. Back in 2008, the university reviewed its governance structure and revised its bylaws. “Concordia sought to bring its governance in line with the funding realities and the accountabilities that come along with working with the postsecondary system in Alberta,” he said. “We needed that accountability, we needed that transparency, and we wanted to have that reflected in the board and in the board structure.”
By 2014, the remaining members of the board of governors who were church-elected had resigned; the current board members are appointed by the board itself. As a next step, Dr. Krispin would like to see board members be appointed by the government, as is the case with other fully public universities in Alberta. “Having a self-appointed board means we get operational funding but we get no capital funding whatsoever, and that makes it very challenging.”
Despite the new direction for Concordia, including a newly-minted logo and mission statement, Dr. Krispin acknowledged that there will be a period of transition. “When you have a 95-year tradition … you cannot just disavow that tradition.” He said it would be “to the detriment of any institution” to do so, noting that there are several Canadian universities and federated colleges that continue to recognize their religious roots.