The Montreat Miracle
By Sarah Eckhoff Zylstra
This article was originally published by The Gospel Coalition on January 24, 2019. It is reprinted here with permission.
Five years ago, Montreat College in North Carolina was in serious trouble.
“The cost of educating students is more than what tuition provides,” Interim President Joe Kirkland told the Asheville Citizen-Times. Students couldn’t afford higher tuition. Government aid was down. And costs kept going up.
As a result, expenses outweighed income by $300,000 in 2011 alone—significant in a budget of about $20 million. In 2012, the college laid off 29 full-time employees. In four years, enrollment plunged from 757 (2009) to 443 (2013).
Montreat’s situation wasn’t unusual. Undergraduate enrollment in America has fallen for six straight years, due largely to a drop in the birth rate, a recovering economy, and prices that have gone up almost 400 percent in the last 30 years.
Without the resources or prestige of larger schools, small private schools have been hit especially hard. Enrollment at degree-granting colleges with fewer than 1,000 students dropped by 5 percent from 2010 to 2016; about 11 private colleges have closed each of the last three years.
Increasingly desperate, Montreat looked into merging with Point University in Georgia. But it wasn’t a good fit—the schools weren’t closely aligned theologically; programs would have to merge; Montreat’s residential campus would likely need to close. Montreat’s faculty voted “no confidence” in its Board of Trustees; Point’s board voted against the merger altogether.
Anyone could see that Montreat would have to close— and soon.
But it didn’t.
Montreat College’s Gaither Hall.
Today, after four straight years of growing enrollment, Montreat has 538 traditional undergraduate students on the main campus, up from 385 in 2014. The residential campus has run out of room; dozens of students are bunking at nearby conference centers. In the past three years, Montreat has hired more than 13 new full-time (and 26 part-time) faculty and staff. And 20 renovation or new construction projects—including a $2.7 million athletic complex—have been completed.
Part of the renewal comes from a $6 million anonymous donation in 2014; part comes from a hot new major— cybersecurity—that Montreat jumped ahead on.
And part of it comes from President Paul Maurer’s push to get the college back on mission.
“We reinserted [biblical] infallibility back into statement of faith—it had been removed about a decade earlier,” Maurer said. “Our first priority was to clarify our Christ-centered identity. It was a higher priority than finding money.”
"'We don't give our money to make things work.' she said. 'We give our money because God says to give it.'"
The town of Montreat (population 760) grew out of a conference center dreamed up by a Congregationalist pastor from Connecticut. He wanted a place for Christians to study and worship and rest together—a “mountain retreat.”
His property and retreat center was sold to Presbyterians in 1907, who soon thought to add heat to the buildings and use them year-round as a school. This early version of Montreat College was for women only, training them to be teachers. (In 1959, men were admitted; today, 51 percent of Montreat students are male.)
The landscape is beautiful, and proved a magnet to retiring missionaries. L. Nelson Bell came to Montreat after 24 years of missionary work in China; his daughter Ruth Bell enrolled at Montreat for her last year of high school. (Montreat was a finishing school and junior college then.) Ruth married Billy Graham in the college chapel, and Billy and Ruth lived in town until tourists peeping in the windows prompted them to move a few miles up the winding road. Their son Franklin graduated from Montreat College; Ruth sat on the board for nine years and raised money for the Dr. L. Nelson Bell Library.
But even famous alumni and board members couldn’t lift Montreat’s fortunes.
Billy Graham, Ruth Bell Graham, and L. Nelson Bell.
Montreat isn’t a stranger to difficulty—in fact, they’re pretty good friends. Money has always been tight. Enrollment has never been high enough. And in 2003, its president of two months resigned after soliciting sex online from a 13-year-old girl.
“I’ve been here since 1974,” said English Professor Don King. “There have been a lot of hard times. But [the spring of 2014] was one of the hardest.”
Negotiations with Point had fallen through. The future was so bleak that the board hadn’t bothered to look for a replacement president after Dan Struble resigned in spring 2013.
“With no good options for moving forward with viability, and a high likelihood the college could close in the near term, the situation was dire,” Maurer wrote.
Then Adjunct Instructor Jerry Lewis, who was also pastor of nearby Grace Community Church, emailed a couple who came to his church while on a family sabbatical to the area in 2012.
“We had plans to save money to build a new preschool and children’s space, and upon their departure, they reached out and said they wanted to help,” Lewis said. “That’s the only way I knew they had means, because their help in our context was significant.”
Lewis “felt the Lord leading me to ask them” about Montreat, but he didn’t want to, worried that the family might be irritated at his presumption or, even worse, pull their financial support of Grace Community.
“I argued with God back and forth for a few weeks, then said, ‘I can’t fight him anymore,’” Lewis said. After talking to the college, he emailed the couple.
He told them Montreat was in trouble. He told them it was the last Council for Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU) member left in North Carolina. He asked if maybe they could help.
Within an hour they emailed back, telling him they had just come into extra money and were wondering what to do with it.
Over six weeks, Lewis emailed and talked with the couple. As he learned more about Montreat’s issues, he grew worried. “What if this doesn’t work?” he asked them. What if, even with their support, the school still closes?
“The wife said to me, ‘We don’t give our money to make things work,’” Lewis remembers. “She said, ‘We give our money because God says to give it.’”
Without ever stepping foot on campus, the couple pledged $6 million to Montreat.
Energized and hopeful, the trustees launched a presidential search.
But even with the $6 million pledge, Maurer was less than enthusiastic about Montreat’s chances. He knew Christian higher education. By then, he had worked for 15 years—with jobs including capital campaign director, dean of adult and graduate studies, and president —in five different CCCU schools.
So he knew the right questions to ask. He knew the right numbers to look up. He knew the right indicators—and the wrong ones.
Undergraduate enrollment was at 300; adult graduate students were at 400. The school needs 1,500 to generate enough income to sustain itself.
But the campus is built to house 500. If you get more students, you need to buy more land and build more facilities, which costs more money. So in attracting students to relieve the financial crisis, you create another financial crisis.
“I am not running toward this,” Maurer told the search firm when they called again. “I am running away, and I am running away fast.”
“Just come down for a lunch,” they said. Mindful of future opportunities with the search firm, he went. They surprised him with a full board interview; a few days later he was voted president.
“At that point, [my wife] Joellen said, ‘Maybe we need to pay attention to this,’” Maurer said. “We discerned over those next few weeks that perhaps God’s fingerprints were on this. If, in fact, this is of the Lord, how dare we say no?”
Montreat College President Paul J. Maurer and wife Joellen Maurer.
Living in a Miracle
It took Maurer two years to figure out he wasn’t trying to turn things around at Montreat.
“Turnaround, turnaround, turnaround was all I ever talked about,” he said. Until one day a venture capitalist told him he didn’t want to do that.
“A turnaround implies you’re returning to some former glory days,” he told Maurer. But Montreat didn’t have any—it had always been in survival mode. So Maurer quit reading about turnarounds and started learning about entrepreneurship.
“We’re a 103-year-old start-up,” he says now.
It’s a weird place for a college to be in, and in some ways, exactly right. “We have been forced to think” about the model, Maurer said. “It’s exactly what higher education is missing.”
“In my observation, a lot of schools ought to think about ‘grow or die’ as crisis management,” he said. “But they don’t have the catalyst of a near-death experience. We have that. It was honestly probably the best thing to happen to this college in 50 years. Then everyone gets it—we have to change.”
But not just change for change’s sake.
Maurer’s first priority was to clarify the school’s values and mission. And in some ways, that wasn’t new or unusual.
“We’ve always had a mission statement, and it was usually updated every time a new president came,” King said. “What is different now is we have a community covenant, which moves beyond theological affirmations to focusing on lifestyle decisions.”
The covenant isn’t long—a little less than 1,200 words, including footnotes. There are eight commitments, including showing evidence of the fruit of the Spirit, upholding the “God-given worth of every human being, from conception to death,” and affirming “chastity among the unmarried and the sanctity of marriage between one man and one woman.”
Those positions aren’t popular, especially in higher education.
“Montreat College sparks turmoil by making teachers sign pledge opposing same-sex marriage, abortion,” the Charlotte Observer reported. “Students and staff to leave Montreat College over ‘covenant’ given to staff,” ABC local affiliate WLOS said. “Private College Mandates Staff Signs Document Opposing Gay Marriage,” the Associated Press announced.
“We were extremely grateful [the media attention] only lasted 30 days,” Maurer said. “It was hot and not fun.”
Around the same time, Montreat chose not to renew its membership with the Association of Presbyterian Colleges and Universities— a group of PC(USA) schools. Through the years, as the denomination grew more liberal, most of the college staff stayed conservative.
“When I went for my M.Div., I was under the care of a PC(USA) presbytery,” Maurer said. “I saw myself under the rule of a denomination that had left biblical orthodoxy, and I didn’t get ordained.” (He currently attends Lewis’s Southern Baptist congregation.)
Maurer knew that, like him, “conservative evangelicals would distrust the idea of us being a conservative, biblically orthodox school” if they had a PC(USA) label.
So Montreat publicly dropped the affiliation, switching instead to independent, because “we knew we had to be trusted by evangelicals.”
As crucial as clarifying Montreat’s Christian identity was, the college also had to grow enrollment—and fast.
“The way to grow is to make your academic product better and better,” Maurer said.
“Our vision is to be rooted as liberal arts and Christian. But also, because we’re American, and we exist in a global economy, we decided to go hard into STEM [science, technology, engineering, and math].”
When Maurer arrived, Montreat already had a minor in cybersecurity. His first year, it became a major. His second year, he noticed that cybersecurity issues were on the front page of The New York Times three or four times a week.
“I thought, We’ve got something here,” he said.
Maurer hired a lobbyist who had worked in the second Bush administration. “The theory was that the federal government could help us scale our program,” he said. “Government money doesn’t scare me, as long as we retain control of our mission and hiring.”
He started visiting Capitol Hill every 60 days, meeting with elected officials, with personnel at the Pentagon, with staff at “multiple three-letter agencies.”
“Every cyber program in America teaches students how to be offensive hackers,” Maurer told them. “When you teach a student to do that, they’d better have a moral compass, because every cyber frontline professional in the world has the keys to your kingdom.”
Ethics, then, is enormously important in the technology classroom. And what better place to learn it than a Christian liberal arts college?
His message went over huge—in the past two years, Maurer has done roundtables on the topic with policy people in Washington, D.C., financial and energy professionals in Charlotte, and technology leaders in Seattle.
In fall 2017, Montreat became the fourth school in North Carolina—and the first in the CCCU—to earn recognition from the National Security Agency and Department of Homeland Security for excellence in cyber defense education.
"Every cyber program in America teaches students how to be offensive hackers. When you teach a student to do that, they'd better have a moral compass, because every cyber frontline professional in the world in the world has the keys to your kingdom."
Montreat College cybersecurity students with cybersecurity professor Kelli Burgin.
"We're talking about strategies to help defend real people, and how we integrate our faith into work. We always go back to God's Word."
When Kelli Burgin began teaching at Montreat three years ago, there were fewer than a dozen cybersecurity majors in the entire college. In fall 2017, that was up to 50. This fall, it was 70.
Burgin and her colleagues “talk to students about ethics a lot—why we do what we do. We have a legal responsibility, but also an ethical responsibility to do things the right way.”
“The right way” means honoring God by prioritizing people.
Cyber defense can mean protecting people from having their identity stolen, from having their business system shut down, from being seduced by an online trafficker. Montreat graduates have gone on to work for the government, for financial institutions, and for health-care systems.
“I had an incoming student who said, ‘I know we’re commanded to love our neighbor, and I really would like to be able to lay down my life for my friends. I think this is one way I can do that,’” Burgin said. “We have a lot of students who feel that way.”
“We’re talking about strategies to help defend real people, and how we integrate our faith into work,” she said. “We always go back to God’s Word.”
Montreat’s emphasis on moral cybersecurity has been a second miracle for the school.
In fall 2015, it held a regional cybersecurity conference for 70 people. Last fall, more than 400 came, including 150 prospective students and parents. The college is working on formal partnerships in the defense and intelligence communities.
Already, the small campus is packed. All cybersecurity students also need to take liberal arts classes—so the parking lots are overflowing, the dorms are full, and faculty are investigating storage rooms to see if they can be turned into additional classrooms.
Montreat isn’t talking about closing anymore. Instead, the buzz is about a piece of property 10 minutes away, and the $400 million to $500 million they’ll need to develop it into a main campus.
Energy is building among staff, students, and donors—including the original, anonymous couple, whose gift of $6 million has grown to $10 million.
“There is momentum,” CCCU president Shirley Hoogstra said. “All of Montreat’s history and legacy gives them a solid foundation to build on, and in Paul [Maurer] they have a leader with courage and communication skills. They can take off the lid.”
Hand of God
It’s been a busy four years. “I’ve never worked harder or faster,” Maurer said.
Because as any ancient Israelite will tell you, a miraculous rescue from one dark place does not mean your troubles are over.
“Think about the blind beggar Bartimaeus,” Maurer said. “He got his sight back, so he had to go find a job or beg with sight, which would have been harder. Think about Lazarus—he had to die again. Think about any miracle in all of Scripture and ask yourself the question, ‘What was the purpose of that miracle?’”
It wasn’t to make people’s lives easier.
Always, the answer was to glorify God, to give people the opportunity to say, “God is great,” he said.
And that has “an enormous impact on morale.”
Every time he tells the story, “there’s an audible response from whomever he’s talking to,” said executive director of marketing and communications Sara Baughman. “Hearing the miracle story is part of what attracted me to this place. I felt like God’s provision and hand was here.”
She’s not the only one—the faculty and staff at Montreat are “extraordinarily committed” because “we feel God is at work here,” Maurer said. “And every day here, we have not lost sight—and by God’s grace, we’ll never lose sight—that we are living in a miracle.” ■
Sarah Eekhoff Zylstra is senior writer for The Gospel Coalition.