Dean and Dian Vieselmeyer met in high school at Concordia teacher’s college in Seward, Nebraska, earned teaching degrees there, got married and headed out on a life of adventure. For thirty-four years they played an integral part in building the organizational infrastructure at Concordia Irvine, both on campus and at their home, where they hosted hundreds of students.
“The Vieselmeyers love this place and have worked tirelessly to make it better, getting here early and staying late for so many years to help students,” says Gary McDaniel, CUI’s executive vice president and chief operating officer. “They are great role models in their relationship with Christ and are always, always serving the students. Their commitment to students and their academic success is second to none. I don’t know anyone who has done it better.”
The Vieselmeyers’ major accomplishment, from an institutional perspective, was helping to dramatically increase CUI’s student retention through extraordinary efforts to create a caring, responsive campus community. Those efforts were recognized at one point by a long article in the Orange County Register and by nationwide recognition and invitations to teach industry leaders about implementing successful retention strategies.
It all began with a call from then-CUI president Ray Halm, who had taught the Vieselmeyers in high school and later hired Dean to a post in Milwaukee. The Vieselmeyers were comfortably ensconced in Nebraska when Halm invited them to move west. Dean was coaching football at CU Nebraska, and Dian had started the college’s learning center and tutoring services.
Our vision for Concordia was always to be a real arm of the church and understand that every calling is a holy calling.
“Our families, everybody, were in Nebraska. Why would we move?” Dian says. “But we did. Our heart was in Nebraska but God had other ideas.”
“If you tell God your plans, he starts laughing,” Dean quips.
They arrived at an Irvine campus that was “kind of a wasteland,” Dian says in her inimitably blunt way. “We had coyotes on campus, owls hatching their eggs on the balcony, deer, bobcats. One time a deer ran into the door of the admin building. It was wild.”
The home they bought wasn’t much better—“a horrible fixer-upper house which we’re still in,” Dian says with a laugh.
The early years were lean for the college, too, with staff members wearing multiple hats and sometimes wondering if the doors would open in the fall.
“There were times when everyone took cuts for a couple of months and then they paid us back,” Dian says. “We just thought, ‘God’s going to have to take care of us.’”
At the time, in 1985, the young college’s retention was very low, under 60 percent, Dean set one big goal for his tenure: to improve student retention.
“I wanted to see 85 percent retention and a graduation rate of over 60 percent,” he says. “We would sit down and think-tank and say how do we help the whole student? What kind of program can we do in every one of our areas? In advising? The learning center? The career center? Athletics? Music? Theatre? The health office? We developed this whole system and we checked on everybody.”
Not much existed in the way of student services—no career counseling, no academic advising—and so the field was wide open for pioneering. For a time, Dean seemed to be in charge of everything, including housing, student government, athletics (and getting the college into its first real athletics conference), music, theatre, faculty advising, health services, and WOW—freshman orientation week. As a bonus, “Ray didn’t tell me I was going to be the ‘interim’ campus pastor until two weeks before we started school,” Dean says, “so I organized chapel speakers as well.”
The Vieselmeyers viewed each area as a way to meaningfully support retention. As students formed relationships with other students and became involved in the community, they wanted to stay and complete their degrees. Dian worked alongside Dean to build career services, learning services and academic advising.
“Academic advising is critical to retention,” says Dian. “We saw the model of faculty advising and understood the value of having advisors on staff dedicated to that purpose, so students got classes they needed and graduated on time. Academic advising involved a lot of late-night hours. I’d go home, fix dinner and go back to campus to meet with students. I was often there until midnight. When the library closed, I left. And we loved every minute of it.”
The Vieselmeyers also started and taught the freshman seminar for twenty years to help students make the transition from high school to college. One requirement was that students come to their house for dinner.
“We got up to seventy students a night,” Dian recalls. “I had a great big oven roaster and cooked the meal myself—shells and cheese, spaghetti, and a famous ice cream dessert. Some students would try to sneak in two nights in a row, or upper classmen would turn up at the door when I was cleaning up, wanting ice cream. Those were great years. I meet people who still ask if we’re doing dinner for the freshmen.”
Tamara Sauer ’02, MA ’18, who is now the director of alumni and family relations at CUI, worked under Dean as a student for four years, starting as a freshman. He later officiated her wedding at the CU Center.
“I feel like the Vieselmeyers are part of the foundation of my entire adult life,” Sauer says. “Dean is a highly intelligent, incredibly humble man who pours everything into Concordia and those who surround him. He and Dian have consistent faith, pure love, patience, and they listen. It’s about family and community and Christ. They are such a strong couple as a husband and wife, to watch them interact and balance each other and support each other. They are incredible role models to me, and are part of the fabric of Concordia Irvine.”
Hitting the Goal
Dean began reporting on retention rates at every faculty meeting in the mid-1980s, and did so for thirteen years, even though retention was not yet on many people’s radar. His campus-wide plan engaged everyone from faculty to coaches and staff, who kept close tabs on which students were at risk of leaving. Then one day a breakthrough came. “Something was proposed at a faculty meeting, and a faculty member said, ‘How will that impact retention?’” Dian remembers. “We thought, ‘Yes! We’ve done it.’ We were on cloud nine.”
By the late 1990s, retention had made such an amazing recovery at Concordia Irvine, topping 81 percent, that people from colleges like UCLA, USC and CSU Long Beach sought to learn from the Vieselmeyers. The couple began speaking at academic conferences on how to implement retention theories in actual practice.
“We got asked to speak at every place you can imagine,” Dean says. “Concordia Irvine became a school that people looked at and didn’t say, ‘Anybody can get in there.’ We had good instructors and professors that the Lord blessed us with.”
Dean also spearheaded efforts to build a valuable community for Concordia’s faculty and staff, creating summer workshops for professional development. By the early 2000s, he was named Executive Vice President and traveled extensively to speak on the university’s behalf at churches and Lutheran schools. CUI’s performing groups often went with him.
“It was constant,” Dean says. “Hop on a plane with these kids. The next day I go with other kids driving here or there. It was crazy, but it went great.”
Almost incomprehensibly, Dean continued coaching football for Orange Lutheran High School, a program he had co-founded and which won the state title in 2006. “I told them I would coach one year, and it turned into twenty-four,” he says.
Dean also coached his two sons in junior All-American football and little league baseball. Their oldest son, Brent, later served on the coaching staff of the Oakland Raiders, and is now leading a nationally-known high school football program. The other son, Brad, holds a high position at Chevron.
Our blessing was that we were partners in all of this, all the way through.
It was sports that helped Concordia in an unexpected way in 2008 during the Great Recession. The downturn significantly affected Concordia’s budget. At the same time, the new Master’s in Coaching and Athletic Administration (MCAA) program was starting to offer its degree online.
“I was walking down to my office after meeting with the president and someone was asking Tom White, the director of the MCAA program, about online, and Tom said, ‘Well, Dean’s going to be my online director,’” Dean recounts. “I walked back up to the president and said, ‘Make me the director of the online program. We don’t have one yet but we’re going to make one, and we’ll do it on the budget we’ve got right now.’”
Pilot classes began in fall 2007, and “we begged people to take them and tell us, how’d this come off?” Dean says. “We didn’t imagine at all what would happen.”
Forty-five people signed up for fall 2008, and by the next summer it was up to 200. The Lord blessed the program immensely, and quickly. “Overnight, we became a primary source of revenue, Dean says. “It was the Lord’s answer to saving the university.”
Within two-and-a-half years, the university was in much better financial shape. “That was a miracle,” Dean says. Since then, the MCAA program has graduated nearly 3,500 students and become the top program of its kind in the nation.
“Dean has all that energy and great ideas,” says McDaniel, who as a student was recruited by Dean to play football at CU Nebraska, where Dean also coached him. Later, Dean convinced him to move to California to serve as director of student life at CUI. McDaniel worked under him for twelve years, and “every day we talked about retention in some form,” McDaniel says.
“I would not be here or have this career without Dean,” he says. “His work ethic, being positive every day, being a servantleader—he demonstrated that. He cared about me and my family and made sure I had the time I needed to care for them.”
Not only that, but they used to jog together six to ten miles a day. Of course, for Dean, it was his second workout because he had been up at 3 a.m. to go to the gym.
Dean runs less today now that he and Dian are both 70, and Dean has had two knees and a hip replaced. They continued hosting student dinners for MCAA students at their house until recently.
“Our vision for Concordia was always to be a real arm of the church and understand that every calling is a holy calling,” says Dean. “Our mission is spreading the word to everybody in your daily walk. That was the idea behind driving for excellence.”
Dian adds: “Our blessing was that we were partners in all of this, all the way through. It was a family affair. God gave us the energy to do it. He put us in this place, showed us what he wanted us to do, gave us great kids, put all these mission and ministries in front of us. There was never a doubt in our minds that this is what we were supposed to be doing, and the magic was we did it all together.”