Kurt Krueger, president of Concordia University Irvine since 2010—and CUI English professor and provost before that—will retire in July, leaving the university in perhaps the strongest state academically, missionally and financially in its history.
“Kurt has a love for the institution and the people—the faculty, staff and students,” says Elmer Gooding, who serves as chairman of CUI’s board of regents and had a nearly-forty-year career as professor of economics, vice provost and other posts at Arizona State University. “He’s a quiet leader, strongly committed to the mission of the institution and the church at large. He leads by example, not by a lot of rah-rah. Other people see and respect that.”
He’s a quiet leader, strongly committed to the mission of the institution and the church at large. He leads by example, not by a lot of rah-rah. Other people see and respect that.
Krueger also “brought the university into a strong financial position. Without a doubt it’s the best financial position the university has ever achieved,” Gooding says. “Kurt leads by example and is a faithful servant of God.”
Krueger—Hemingway scholar, Milwaukee native, and four-year starter on his college football team—says he never even made a career plan.
“I didn’t take the advice of people in leadership books,” he says with a chuckle. “I really had faith in the concept of the Call. I’ve tried to work hard, be a responsible teacher and employee. I figured if people wanted to promote me, they would give me more responsibilities and I’d do my best to fulfill those and see where God would lead. I’ve pretty much let God work through me.”
He’s quick to add that he has a daily list of tasks as president, and a long-term plan for the university’s strategic initiatives. But “when it came to my personal career, my only career goal was to be a faithful teacher of the church,” he says.
Kurt and his three siblings grew up as preacher’s kids in a “very safe, nurturing environment” in Milwaukee. Their mother was a Lutheran school teacher.
“The experiences at church, in youth group, in a growing congregation—it was a very enjoyable atmosphere to be in,” he recalls. “My dad was a positive guy, always optimistic, energetic and well-liked. It was a great childhood.”
All the Krueger kids became Lutheran teachers of one kind or another. Kurt traces his love of English to high school, where extensive footnotes in an English textbook helped him crack the code of Shakespeare’s language.
“I was flabbergasted that after a couple minutes it was understandable,” he says. “I was hooked from that point on. Still one of my favorite things in life is to open a brand-new book, sit down and spend an hour with it.”
But Krueger was no bookworm. At Valparaiso University he played wide receiver for four years on a team that won two conference championships, and met his wife, Val, at a neighborhood club for underprivileged kids.
They married in St. Louis in 1971 and their honeymoon trip was to his first Call as a teacher at Concordia High School in Portland, Oregon. They spent nine years there, with Kurt teaching English and drivers’ education, and coaching basketball and football.
But it was a year-long break to sell insurance that perhaps changed their lives most. Testing the waters as a salesman for Aid Association for Lutherans, Kurt was on a house call to visit a pastor who had five adopted children and wanted more life insurance. That conversation led him to connect the Kruegers with a Lutheran attorney who was trying to find a home for an infant to be born six months later. That child became the first of the Kruegers’ two adopted children, Tim, 40, and Debbie, 32.
“When I asked the Lord why he led me away from my teaching vocation, I suppose His answer was, ‘So you could find this young baby,’” Krueger says.
The growing family then returned to Milwaukee, where Kurt taught English, coached football and women’s basketball, and served as athletic director at Concordia University Wisconsin. They enjoyed six years near family—and Lambeau Field for Green Bay Packers games. Then a call came from a sunnier climate.
“It was intriguing to come to a small school, Christ College, that was just starting,” Krueger says. “The challenge was to help build a school dedicated to the Great Commission. Since our founding we have been known as the Great Commission college. To help the founders realize that vision was very appealing.”
Not to mention no more coaching. For the first time, Krueger could concentrate solely on academics, which meant teaching his beloved Hemingway. Krueger’s master’s thesis was on The Old Man and the Sea, and Krueger had visited Hemingway’s homes in Illinois and Key West, Florida.
“Hemingway was kind of an unsavory character, but wrote in such a way that he was in touch with some of those timeless beliefs, themes and ideas, mostly centered around nature, about what it means to be a human being, what integrity and courage mean,” Krueger says.
I really had faith in the concept of the Call. I’ve pretty much let God work through me.
Courage was needed when he was asked to serve in his first administrative role at Christ College (now Concordia University Irvine). In a meeting, the faculty appointed committee members to an accreditation self-study team—“not a prestigious position,” Krueger recalls. “Nobody really wanted it.” The man chosen happened to be heading into a sabbatical, and so “they looked around the room, saw me and said, ‘Will you be willing to serve on this committee?’ I said “Eh, sure, okay.’ That’s literally how I got into higher education administration.”
He also continued to teach, and CUI professor Kristen Schmidt, who joined Krueger in the English department in 1990, watched how students enjoyed his teaching and his “great, dry wit.” Nowhere was that more apparent than in the legendary “chapel wars” between Krueger and math professor Ken Mangels, who later served as dean of the School of Arts and Sciences, and retired in 2009.
“I gave him a hard time about being an English professor, and he gave me a hard time about being a mathematics professor,” Mangels remembers. “Then they scheduled us back to back [as chapel speakers] just because of that.”
Meanwhile, as editor of the accreditation self-study, Krueger oversaw faculty members who were writing various parts of it, and found himself going to their offices to encourage them, speed them along or help them compose something.
“That’s how I learned to work with college faculty, who are dedicated, gifted and smart, but can be very independent,” he says.
He was called to be dean of Arts and Sciences, then provost for nine years before heading to St. Louis to become president of the Concordia University System. He saw his job as encouraging individual schools and sharing best practices across the system.
When nominated for CUI’s presidency in 2010, “we were really excited about the prospect of coming back, to be closer to students, and closer to family,” he says.
Craig Olson, former CEO of Fresh Start Bakeries, a global supplier of foods to McDonald’s and other restaurants, served as chairman of CUI’s board of regents and chairman of the search committee whose yearlong efforts led them to select Krueger.
“What stood out was his calm and humble demeanor, but also the respect that his colleagues had for him. He is really a faithful Lutheran, Christian man,” Olson says.
Krueger accepted the call that year.
When it came to my personal career, my only career goal was to be a faithful teacher of the church.
“Absolutely, it would have shocked me when I began my career 46 years ago to know I would be president of a Lutheran university,” he says when asked. “I'm still surprised by the way the Lord has blessed me and my wife all these years.”
For the first two years of his presidency, when walking up the steps from the president’s home to his office, Kurt would say, “I’m actually the president of Concordia Irvine. Dear Lord, what are you thinking here?... [But] I did feel well-prepared because of my years of experience and because I knew most of the people here at Irvine and had helped hire most of the faculty.”
Today, a big poster of Ernest Hemingway sits on top of a shelf in Krueger’s office, overlooking a man familiar with the challenges facing many Christian liberal arts colleges today.
“We have a tuition-driven business model,” Krueger says. “That means there’s the constant challenge to recruit students at the undergraduate level, and for all of our master’s and adult programs. You’re constantly looking at the funnel to see how many inquiries, applications, deposits and enrollments you have. That’s a challenge that’s not going to go away.” A second challenge is “finding great, dedicated faculty members who want to teach for the modest salaries we offer,” he says.
In the face of those and other headwinds, the leadership team at CUI, led by Krueger, has accomplished much in eight years, observers say. They have kept the mission statement visible and central, “to become the guiding force that it needs to be,” Olson says. “It’s focusing on the Great Commission while combining it with the desire to develop wise, honorable and cultivated citizens.
Kurt made it the marching orders for the executive team and all of those on staff, faculty, and the board of regents as well.” Gooding says Krueger “was certainly the right person during the time we’re in. He had the right experiences and took Concordia to the next level. He’s been an exceptional president, in my opinion.”
Gooding and Olson agree that Krueger strengthened the senior team well “by being trusted, by delegating and challenging those folks to be fully accountable and responsible for their area, to bring ideas to the table,” says Gooding. “They’ve handled the finances extremely well, yet held firm to the mission of the institution and commitment to Christian education.”
In the last eight years, CUI increased its cash reserves from $2 million to about $24 million. The endowment has risen from around $9 million to around $30 million, and now produces hundreds of thousands of dollars for scholarship aid per year. The student body has grown from 2,900 to 4,300 students, and the programs offered are more numerous and more diversified.
Krueger praises CUI’s leadership, including his predecessors, for moving quickly into online education. “I was a skeptic until I taught my first online class [while serving as provost], but I soon learned that online education can be a powerful learning tool,” he says. “The adults were learning as much as the students were in the face-to-face classes. You don’t have to water anything down. The real plus is that in an online class, no one can hide in the back row. Everybody participates and has to respond to questions during class, usually by email or through the online portal.”
That insight helped CUI establish the largest master’s degree in coaching and athletics administration (MCAA) in the country. Krueger is also proud of the innovative EdD program in educational leadership (the first and only doctorate offered at Concordia Irvine), which because of its excellent design and streamlined approach now has 75 students.
What will he miss most? “I’m going to really miss going to chapel four days a week and hearing my colleagues express their faith in very winsome, honest and personal ways,” he says. He and Val will also miss spending time with CUI faculty, staff and friends and donors of the university.
The Kruegers are moving an hour away to be near their grandchildren, 8 years old and six months old. “I’m really looking forward to reconnecting with both grandkids,” Krueger says. “It’s just so much fun. That’s probably number one.”
Reading and exercise will also be part of the retirement plan, and a river cruise through Germany.