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Stepping down at Concordia Saint Paul

After 20 years as president, Robert Holst looks to the future

President Robert Holst is about to end his 20-year tenure as head of Concordia University, St. Paul, Minnesota. To hear him talk about it, it has been a great ministry experience leading one of the ten schools in the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod’s “Concordia University System.”

Like any challenging position, it has not always been wonderful. But the sense of deep satisfaction he feels from having invested 20 years leading this interesting urban school is evident as one speaks with him.

Concordia University, St. Paul, President Bob Holst continued his commitment to teaching even as a college president because he so enjoyed time with his students. Photos provided by Concordia University

Holst told Metro Lutheran, “My greatest satisfaction is knowing that nearly 11,000 students have earned degrees at Concordia St. Paul on my watch. Isn’t that marvelous?” The clergyman/missionary-turned-university-president has other reasons to feel satisfied. During his presidency, which began in 1991, Concordia St. Paul has grown its enrollment to nearly 3,000 students; added 20 acres to the campus; been upgraded from a college to a university with four deans and a growing graduate school; established the world’s first and only Center for Hmong Studies (2004); and erected five major new buildings — Gangelhoff Athletic Center (1993), the Theater Arts Center incorporating Buetow Music Building (1994), the Library Technology Center (2003), a Residence Life Center (2008), and Sea Foam Stadium and its bubble roof to cover it during harsh Minnesota winters (2009).

The road from student to president

Coming to Concordia as president was, for Holst, like coming home. “I attended Austin [Minnesota] High School for three years, then transferred to Concordia Academy in St. Paul for my senior year. I stayed on campus for junior college. Concordia was only two years in those days.”

Concordia St. Paul enjoys all the advantages and challenges of a university situated in an urban environment.

He went on to Concordia Theological Seminary in St. Louis, Missouri, which had a high school completion program, then earned what is now called a Master of Divinity Degree. After 20 years as a parish pastor in Illinois, a missionary in New Guinea, and a faculty member at Concordia Irvine (in southern California), Holst completed the circle. He got the call to serve as Concordia St. Paul’s president.

“I was shocked when they offered it to me,” Holst admits. Though trained to be a parish pastor, he says the presidency of Concordia St. Paul was also a significant ministry.

“One of the challenges a college of the church faces is combining high learning with a deep faith.” He sees the “science versus religion” face-off as misguided. “Faith and science are both gifts from God. We shouldn’t be soft on either one.

“We’re in a secular culture,” Holst points out. “Christianity is a community of grace. That’s something we can offer on the campus of a college of the church.” But he’s realistic about the fact that “offering Lutheranism” isn’t going to draw many prospective students to campus. “Students come here for a great education,” he says. “Lutheranism is a value they discover after they’re here. We don’t require a faith statement from students when they enroll. But they get a faith environment while they’re on campus.”

A legacy of high quality, inclusive education

Concordia St. Paul enjoys all the advantages and challenges of a university situated in an urban environment. On the plus side, “immigrant populations come to campus. New immigrants can enrich and educate the rest of us,” he says. “Between 30 and 40 percent of our en- rollment is now non-European. We have Hmong and Somali students on our campus. Their numbers will only increase.” According to Holst, Concordia St. Paul has until recently been the most ethnically diverse college in Minnesota. “Augsburg may have surpassed us in recent years,” he speculates.

During his tenure as president of Concordia University, St. Paul, Bob Holst developed a reputation as a world traveler. Here he rides a camel while leading a campus trip to Egypt. Holst relished opportunities to introduce students to new international experiences.

Holst has gained a reputation over his 20 years at Concordia St. Paul for being something of a globetrekker.

On the down-side, many students who find their way to a center-city campus have limited or no means for paying their own way. “Dealing with the changing fiscal climate has been a great frustration for me. The national church can no longer provide much help to us. Support for a school like Concordia comes from two sources — tuition and benefactors. In that context, we struggle to find ways to provide the financial support that our neediest students require.”

Holst reflects with some humor on the natural confusion caused by having two Lutheran Concordias in the same state. “It doesn’t happen so much now that we changed our name from ‘college’ to ‘university,’ but we used to get phone calls from people asking, ‘Now, where exactly is your language camp located?’” (Concordia Moorhead, an ELCA school, has the language camp). “And I’ve spoken to folks at the Moorhead Concordia who report that they get phone calls asking, ‘Which Twin Cities freeway exit do I take to find you?’”

Holst has gained a reputation over his 20 years at Concordia St. Paul for being something of a globetrekker. He and his wife Lynn have tried to travel overseas at least once a year — sometimes twice. Occasionally, they accompanied campus music groups on tour; other times, they joined alumni groups taking trips to Europe or elsewhere.

Says the retiring president, “There were several reasons we did that. For one thing, it can be a spiritually-enriching experience. I would offer a devotional time each day. Any in the group who wanted to participate could do so. For another thing, I wanted to make myself a better president. I knew these trips would educate me. They always did. And, traveling enabled me to tell Concordia’s story to people who might never have heard of our school.”

Some years ago, Holst told Metro Lutheran, “A study experience overseas can teach a student more than he or she might learn in an entire year on campus.” Obviously, Robert Holst took that advice to heart, by keeping his suitcase at the ready.

What comes next for Concordia’s retiring chief executive? “I don’t know. I need to take some time to weigh my options. Some discernment is in order.” Undoubtedly that process will take a while. In the meantime, there’s a farewell event on May 11 at 7:30 p.m. in the campus’ Gangelhoff Center.

“One thing I won’t miss,” he says, “is having to deal with all the questions and challenges that lay heavily on a college president day in and day out — something as mundane as why the college cafeteria may or may not be serving the best food. But, on the other hand, there are plenty of great and wonderful memories. It’s been a good 20 years.”

For information about the new Concordia University president, read “Tom Ries named new Concordia president.”

What are some people saying …

Dr. Robert Holst has been blessed with the gifts of being both a visionary individual and an effective change agent. His tenure at Concordia University, St. Paul, is a wonderful example of a man of God being in the right place at the right time.
—Lane R. Seitz, president, Minnesota South District, LCMS

Bob Holst as president loved all and was loved by all. He is energetic, and tireless in his leadership style.
—Loma Meyer, former vice president, Concordia University

As Concordia’s president, Bob Holst has been a role model for me and countless others who value his humble yet firm leadership in pursuit of Concordia’s academic and public mission. Bob “walks the talk” and all of us who care about the role of education in shaping a good and responsible democracy owe him a huge debt of gratitude for his intellect, his service, and his faithfulness.
—Paul Pribbenow, president, Augsburg College

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