Concordia University Texas CEO
Growing up in a Lutheran family in Elgin, Illinois, Don Christian said he was very involved in music. He graduated from Concordia University Chicago with a degree in music education before starting his career as a high school band director in Minneapolis.
Christian said he moved to Houston to work at a high school with the idea that a few years in Texas would be a fun change of pace. He said during his time in Houston, someone saw something in him that he didn't know was there, which led him down the path to taking on more leadership roles.
"You should really think about doing X," Christian said he was routinely told, and he listened.
Every position he has held since he was a band director has been a newly created position, up to becoming the dean of Business of Concordia University Texas and eventually the University's CEO.
The trick behind being the first person in a new position is looking at what needs need to be met and how can he fill that need, he said.
How will you impact the community?
About 90–95 percent of our students will stay in the area, not just the traditional student but the nontraditional student—who is older, working, finishing their degree—they have a job, they live here.
Our graduates are moving into this community—into businesses and organizations, in schools, in nonprofits—and they are going to have an impact on them because of how they see the world.
They believe things can be better. That is part of our theology. It's not going to always be perfect, but it can get better. They are going to engage.
Our mega-outcome for the University is men and women who transform communities by seeking leadership opportunities and influencing people through Christ. What that really means is we believe communities can become better. Whether that deals with transportation, education or the environment, our graduates will take that on to make [a community] better, to transform it.
Our mission to develop Christian leaders—we take that very seriously. We are developing them starting here and moving them on, to lead and do that in a way that exhibits an ethical way [of doing things]. How do we treat people? How do we work for the common good? How do we make sure everyone gets to use their gifts and talents for the community?
Do you see a correlation between the ability to lead a band and leading a university?
I remember giving a talk a few years ago called 'Last Chair, Third Clarinet Leadership.' If I teach a math class everyone expects a bell curve in grades—some are phenomenal, some people are going to fail and most of them are in the middle—that doesn't happen in performing arts. I can't have that last chair clarinet doing F work because that is bad music.
Because I can't do their work for them, my job was to help them do their work at their best level. How do you make that last chair clarinet feel like part of the group? How do you write a part for them?
I think that is how I lead. I see gifts in everybody. I believe they are here because they want to make a difference—whether that be an employee or student—and I am going to ask them to give their best so that as an organization we will be the best.
How do you make the transition to CEO?
It will be a year transition. The good part is I know this institution and the community knows me, so there doesn't need to be a big introduction. The first six months will be a listening tour. I will ask questions that haven't been asked before, listen to people's hopes and dreams and figure out what Concordia can be passionate about, what we can be the best in the world at and what can be our economic engine.
I look at our nursing program—obviously a need in this community. We became very passionate about it because it fit so well with our mission. I really believe our program, as it is, is the best in the world. It may not be the best-ranked program in the world, but how we do it—focus on service, community and faith—is the best in the world, and we are getting students.
I will continue to listen for those programs that we can [be the best at].
The second six months will be writing the strategic plan for the University. A year from now Concordia will be announcing its vision for the next five years or so: This is what we want to become, this is how we will do it and this is who we need to be partnering with to make that happen.
How do you feel about the title change from president to CEO?
One of the reasons we did that is because we realized the role of the president [at Concordia] is different than what it has been in the past. The typical picture of a president is teaching a class, hanging out with students, going to basketball games and being the dean of the faculty. The truth is there are only two things I really worry about: raising money and spending money. My job, more than anything else, is to make sure this University is still here 100 years from now.
Do you see continued growth for the University?
When we moved [to the Lake Travis area] we doubled in size very quickly. Now its time for us to double again. That is both in this campus and throughout our system. I think it is important that this particular campus sees growth. We had immediate growth when we moved here, then it stabilized. It is time to grow again.
What role will Concordia athletics have going forward?
Athletics is a big part of who we are. About 33 percent of our students are student-athletes, so [sports are] as much a recruitment piece as anything.
Our athletics make an impact when it is recruiting a student [and the team] is winning. I think the partnership with the community is also a big part. We need to have nice enough facilities not only for the athletes, but for the community to come use and watch. If we have winning teams, I'm hoping this community comes and watches, because they would be watching the future of Major League Baseball, and they don't have to drive downtown.
A lot of people asked if we are going to get football. We'll see after this next year. Schools that have started football see an increase in about 200–300 students. It becomes an event.
Athletics will continue and be an important part of who we are.
How do you view the Lake Travis location?
We recently had incoming freshmen on campus, and during a breakfast I asked them what brought them to our campus. The majority of them say they fell in love with the campus, and I think a large part of it is our setting. We are also very relational, so they feel like they are at home.
The challenge with the location is to remind people that we are still a part of Austin. When you talk about Austin out there in the world they are thinking about downtown, they are thinking about South by Southwest and the music scene.
Our location before moving out here was right off I-35. You could walk across the highway and see poverty. If you walk across the highway here, you don't see poverty. What is interesting is that poverty isn't far away from us. Building compassion was easier down there.
What I love about this area is the people. The people who live out here are very committed to the city has a whole. When this community invests in Concordia, they are really investing in Austin as a whole. Permeable boundaries are really important for a university.
It is a challenge. [The campus location] is hard to get in and out of. We are closed off. I think most people know we are here now; the next question is, what does that mean for them?