Montreat College getting back on course

Paul Clark Editor

“Men Wanted,” the headline read, “for hazardous journey, small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger, safe return doubtful, honor and recognition in case of success.”

In 1912, Sir Ernest Shackleton is largely believed to have taken out that newspaper ad in the Times in London before his journey to the Antarctic. Thousands of men applied, but Shackleton selected only 28 before setting out on his ship, the aptly named Endurance, in what proved to be a harrowing two-year experience of daring and bravado.

Trapped in drift ice in the Weddell Sea, the ship broke up and sank. Stranded on the ice, Shackleton and his crew drifted for a year, finally launching their boats to land on Elephant Island. Despite frozen fingers and feet, Shackleton led a contingent of men on a perilous 17-day, storm-tossed trip through the Drake Passage to South Georgia Island hundreds of miles away. He and two of his men made the first known traverse of the island’s mountains and glaciers, finally reaching a whaling station – malnourished, frost-bitten and exhausted. Three months later, Shackleton returned in a hired steamboat to rescue the remaining men.

Paul Maurer can quote that old newspaper ad from memory, as he did for me at a Black Mountain-Swannanoa Chamber of Commerce after-hours function last Thursday. The president of Montreat College, Maurer said he recites it to potential hires as well. The person that would have responded to that ad is the kind of person he wants on his team, he said, as he faces the difficult task of turning Montreat College around.

Montreat has certainly struggled. As our story on 2A points out, the college considered - but dropped – forming an affiliation with a Georgia-based university. Financial difficulties landed Montreat College on a U.S. Department of Education watch list. Like many small private colleges in the U.S., Montreat College has dealt with declining enrollment.

Maurer was hired last year and has just recently completed hiring his executive team. Tall, with a shaved head and a forceful personality, he’s big. Not so much physically, in that he’s not that much taller than most of us. Just “big” personality-wise. Dynamic. He seems to be just the person the college needs to guide it through its perilous seas.

During our conversation, Maurer pulled out his cell phone and showed me a photo of Shackleton’s ad. He said he has hired people with bold personalities, the kind who thrive on challenge. They’re the kinds of people that Shackleton would have hired, Maurer believes.

That sense of boldness, of endurance and daring at Montreat College, is already showing results - projected enrollment for the 2015-16 year is up 29 percent from the previous school year. Last week, because of how well the college finished the 2013-14 fiscal year, the Department of Education informed it that previously imposed restrictions were lifted.

Montreat College is in a position to accept dozens of students from the troubled Clearwater Christian College in Florida, as our story on 2A points out. And the college is working on five fully-funded construction projects this summer to upgrade its campus, including a $2 million athletic complex on its Black Mountain campus.

Turning an institution the size of Montreat College around takes three to five years, Maurer said. The institution is still faces multiple challenges, he said. But a year in, Montreat College has taken steps toward its vision of being a leader in Christian higher education, Maurer said.

Not to make too much of the nautical analogy, but it seems like the college is getting its bearings. No doubt Shackleton would be pleased.