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Concordia owes Portland a compassionate exit

Even as other private colleges struggled, Concordia University-Portland seemed to be on the upswing. Enrollment at the Northeast Portland campus had stabilized, its law school in Boise secured full accreditation from the American Bar Association and just last week, the university raised more than $350,000 at its annual fundraising gala.

With a new interim president at the helm of the 115-year-old institution, few suspected how deeply deceiving that picture was — least of all the 5,000-plus students paying as much as $31,000 in annual tuition to attend the private Christian university.

Turns out Concordia University, which announced this week that it will shut down after the end of the spring semester, wasn’t immune to the same pressures that forced the closures in recent years of Marylhurst University in Lake Oswego and the Oregon College of Art and Craft. Interest and enrollment in post-secondary education has been on the decline nationwide, as people choose employment over the expense of college.

But some of Concordia’s troubles were also of its own making. The school embarked on an aggressive plan to increase its enrollment by offering online classes. While it did indeed gain thousands of online students, that growth came at a steep price, as The Oregonian/OregonLive’s Jeff Manning reported. The university paid $59 million in 2016 to HotChalk Inc., the company offering the online courses. Considering its revenue from tuition and fees for 2016 was only $131 million, the wisdom of such an expensive arrangement is questionable at best.

But that’s not the only question. Portland is left to wonder whether this university — and other small colleges that closed before — could have done more to correct these issues before pulling the plug and leaving so many lives in turmoil.

Not that anyone at Concordia is all that interested in entertaining those questions. The chairman of the board of regents was not available Tuesday for comment. And members of the board — most of whom live out of state in California, Nevada and as far away as Missouri — left the responsibility of making the announcement to its new interim president, Rev. Dr. Thomas Ries, who started at the Portland school all of six weeks ago.

That distance may make it easier to avoid the anxiety gripping students, staff and faculty members, who are scrambling to figure out what their educational or employment futures will look like. It may also help to ignore the disruption and confusion in the community, such as with Portland Public Schools with whom Concordia partnered to rebuild and run the innovative Faubion School for students from pre-kindergarten through eighth grade.

But Concordia needs to show that in disengaging from Portland, it still cares about this community. That means following through with promises to help students find a way to continue their education — without financial penalty or interruption. It means helping faculty and staff members bridge the gap between their jobs and their next place of employment. And it means working with city and county officials to see if its land and dormitories can help fill the breach that its abrupt departure is creating.

Concordia’s mission has been about shaping graduates who bring their sharp minds and deep compassion for meeting the world’s needs. In its last acts, the school should set an example for how to do so.