Paul Maurer – The Miracle at Montreat

“Our vision is for Montreat to become the school of choice for thoughtful evangelicals for the Southeast United States.” -Paul Maurer

[00:00:00] Paul Maurer: I’ve had mentors for probably close to 45 years now, and early on it was people who reached out to me.

And then as I got older and hopefully a little bit wiser, I began to reach out to others to ask them to mentor me. People who I thought were wiser, more experienced, had something to contribute, could sharpen an area where I wasn’t particularly sharp. And so the collection of mentors over the course of my lifetime is not small and in the aggregate has played a very powerful role in my life.


[00:00:37] Tommy Thomas: Today, we’ll begin a two-part series with Paul Mauer, the president of Montreat College. When Paul was selected to be the president of Montreat, the college wasn’t very far from closing its doors. What’s happened at Montreat over the past nine years is nothing short of miraculous. Today Paul will share a bit of his leadership journey and the early days of his presidency at Montreat. 

Before we dive too deep into your professional career, let’s go back to your childhood a little bit. What two or three experiences do you think happened back then that shaped you into the man you are today? 

[00:01:16] Paul Maurer: I think being raised in a stable home with a mother and father who stayed together and taught me the value of work and they modeled consistency.

They modeled resiliency, they modeled work ethic. In addition to the DNA that I got from my parents, I was deeply shaped by watching a low drama, stable home environment. 

[00:01:45] Tommy Thomas: So, what was high school like? 

[00:01:48] Paul Maurer: Honestly, pretty unremarkable except for the fact that I came to faith during high school as a sophomore through the Ministry of Young Life, and that changed everything.

I began to understand friendship. I began to understand love. I began to understand family in a whole new way. I began to understand the power, the body of Christ. I began to understand fellowship. I began to understand purpose and meaning in life. I’d grown up in a stable moral home, but not a home of faith.

And so as I got plugged into the church and youth group as a 15 year old sophomore in high school, I felt like I began to see things that I simply could not see before that. 

[00:02:38] Tommy Thomas:   When you got to college how did you decide on your major?

[00:02:42] Paul Maurer: Anything without math.  So, I chose psychology and communications as my two majors, and early in college, I began to sense a call to ministry and I was at the University of Cincinnati, so I wasn’t at a faith-based college. I chose majors that would help me understand people better and to communicate better. And those were things that were interesting to me. 

[00:03:13] Tommy Thomas: What’s something that most people are always surprised to learn about you? 

[00:03:19] Paul Maurer: I am a first gen. My parents were immigrants. I don’t know whether they’re surprised by that, but it’s an important part of my past and informs a lot of how I think about the college presidency today and how I think about our students.

I had the benefit of immigrant parents and the challenge of immigrant parents, and both were real, and both were formative and powerful in my life. 

[00:03:45] Tommy Thomas: So go back to maybe to your first management job when you actually had some people reporting to you. What do you remember?

[00:03:53] Paul Maurer: I don’t know if it was my first management job, but I learned early in management that there’s a reason people don’t want to manage people. It takes a lot of time. It’s hard to build culture. There’s a lot of self-interest. There’s a natural silo mentality to individuals who work for you, and in the worst-case scenario, there are lawsuits to deal with.

And so as I’ve observed human behavior and leadership I’ve observed a lot of people who simply don’t want to manage people. And so I think if you’re in a role of leadership, you’ve got to decide pretty early on or certainly somewhere early along the way, whether or not you’re willing to manage people and take the challenges that come with the benefits of management and leadership.

[00:04:47] Tommy Thomas: It seems like in our culture that that’s a natural career track that maybe people expect you to go to work and become a manager. And there doesn’t seem to be a key contributor role necessarily at the forefront. Do you have any observations on that?

[00:05:03] Paul Maurer: I think as a young person the expectations I think ought to be toward how do I contribute, how do I learn, how do I get mentored? How do I show that I’m worthy of more responsibility? And, as a young person, I demonstrated trust in those areas. They may be given leadership but not everyone, of course, is a natural leader and some people don’t want to lead, and others learn the leadership skills along the way.  And so I think it’s a very organic process, particularly for someone in their twenties and thirties. 

[00:05:50] Tommy Thomas: Successful people are asked all the time, what makes you successful? And I’m sure you’ve been asked that question. I’d like to frame it a little bit differently. What’s a factor that’s helped you succeed that most people on the outside probably wouldn’t realize or recognize?

[00:06:06] Paul Maurer: For me I think the most important part of that was mentors who believed in me. Again, I was a first gen. I didn’t have a lot of confidence in my academic ability. I didn’t have a lot of confidence in who I am. And I was a young Christian by the time I’d gotten to college.

The power of affirmation was very great in my life. A couple of mentors who said who I regarded and respected, people who spoke into my life, and then they spoke affirmation into my life. And I’ll never forget how incredibly powerful that was in helping me gain confidence in who God might be making me into, and the roles that God might be leading me into.

And I’m mindful of that in my role in leadership, that the power of affirmation spoken in the right context, in the right hearing can be extraordinarily powerful, disproportionately powerful, to how a young person develops and believes in themself and believes what God has in store for them.

[00:07:19] Tommy Thomas: Did these mentors just show up or do you think they were intentional in terms of seeing you and taking you on as a mentee? 

[00:07:29] Paul Maurer: It was a combination. I’ve had mentors all my life, so I’ve had mentors for probably close to 45 years now, and early on it was people who reached out to me.

And then as I got older and hopefully a little bit wiser, I began to reach out to others to ask them to mentor me. People who I thought were wiser, more experienced, had something to contribute, could sharpen an area where I wasn’t particularly sharp. And so the collection of mentors over the course of my lifetime is not small and in the aggregate has played a very powerful role in my life.

[00:08:11] Tommy Thomas: Do you think college students today are open to mentors? Do they seek that out or are they on a different wavelength? 

[00:08:18] Paul Maurer: I wouldn’t generalize that. I think some are and some aren’t, and I think that was probably the way it was when I was a college student. Some aren’t.

If you’re hungry, if you want to grow, if you want to learn, if you have a vision for the future, if you have some requisite version of humility that you don’t have all the answers, don’t know everything, then I think people are very open to mentoring. I’ve got a student who works in my office 10 hours per week every semester here, so-called the Wilson Scholars Program here at the college.

And my Wilson Scholar this year was a sophomore student from Ukraine. And she was hungry. She’s really eager to learn and she has tremendous promise. But not everyone is like that, not everyone has those qualities. So I would be very hesitant to generalize about a generation and say it just depends.


[00:09:12] Tommy Thomas: Okay. I’ve never asked this next question to anybody because I don’t think I’ve interviewed anybody that studied the American presidency in graduate school and I just think that’s fascinating. And I’m just wondering if you might just reflect back on that for a few minutes and talk about are there any generalizations you learned about the American presidency and leadership and influence?

[00:09:35] Paul Maurer: Yeah, I love talking about that topic and I was drawn to the American presidency because I’m very interested in leadership and I’m very interested in faith and scripture, and I’m very interested in American politics, and the intersection of all those things led me to the American presidency and to do research on the role of moral and religious rhetoric during the course of the American presidency. And so I created a lexicon of distinctly religious rhetoric for the American presidency that stretched from Washington through Clinton. I was in grad school at the time, shortly after Clinton, so that’s where the research took me.

And I discovered that there was a tremendous amount of increased use of distinctly religious rhetoric, beginning with Jimmy Carter in the White House and the modern era, starting with Carter and extending to Reagan. And then Clinton as well, had very high levels of religious and moral rhetoric as part of how these presidents spoke.

And that before that they weren’t exceptionally low in particular, but they spiked during the, particularly the Carter and Reagan years. And so the focus of my research was a comparative analysis between Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, a Democrat or Republican back-to-back presidents and how they used religious and moral rhetoric in their presidency in particular, did they tie it to any public policy initiatives that were important to them as US President?

[00:11:14] Tommy Thomas:  Was it Reagan? No, I guess it was the Bush White House that did the faith-based initiative. Did any of your research have a tie to that initiative?

[00:11:25] Paul Maurer: So for Jimmy Carter, he tied his faith rootedness, his understanding of scripture – his belief in a transcendent God. He tied that to human rights. What was interesting to me as I studied his rhetoric and record and policy on human rights is that the definition of human rights really expanded pretty dramatically in Carter’s thinking and rhetoric. And I think it extended beyond his biblical understanding of faith.

He might argue differently. But I thought it went beyond that. And for Reagan this question of liberty was directly tied to his belief in God and the Bible, and tied directly to his disdain, even hatred of communism. He thought that communism was a suppression of God-given liberty, and we needed to exercise our right to that God-given liberty and anyone who sought to oppress it he had very low esteem for, and of course, before he became a politician, he was an actor in Hollywood. 

It was a time in Hollywood where there was infiltration in Hollywood of certain communist elements. Tax rates were for him as an actor and the 90% range. And so there was a disincentive for him to work beyond a certain level of income. And so he grew both personally, professionally, but also politically to a point where he really sought to unhinge communism if he could possibly do and of course, as the forces of history were what they were, we saw the Berlin Wall come down. It wasn’t simply Ronald Reagan. There were obviously economic factors in the Soviet Union. It was the economic pressures at the time. There were things being done behind the scenes from the papacy in Rome, but ultimately his focus on liberty resulted in part in the Berlin Wall coming down.

So that was Reagan’s primary connection to his faith as a public policy endeavor. 

[00:13:50] Tommy Thomas: Man, I bet that was some fascinating research in writing. 

[00:13:53] Paul Maurer: It kept me interested, which is what you want in a dissertation. You don’t want to wake up going, gosh, I hate my dissertation today.


[00:13:59] Tommy Thomas: Absolutely. Let’s go to Montreat for a little bit. Depending on who one talks with, many would say it was nothing short of a miracle – what’s happened in Montreat over the past few years. Can you take us into that? 

[00:14:13] Paul Maurer:  Montreat today is 107 years old. Our campus is physically a small campus set against a mountain cove in Montreat, North Carolina, just outside of Asheville and the western mountains of the state.

The campus was built for 500 students, but economics, the course of higher education in the last 20 or 30 years make that very difficult to survive. And so over many decades, really, as I’m told, Montreat had a number of near-death experiences where, of course, Montreat is where Billy and Ruth Graham lived for most of their lives after they got married. 

They actually got married in what today is our college chapel. We have a church that meets there, and they attended there when they were in town. But the college was too small and enrollment had declined. And in 2013, the college went into merger conversations with the school in Georgia.

A year later, that merger conversation collapsed, and the college really had two options. As we see it, one is to close and the other is for God to show up in a big way. And there’s a longer version of the story. But the quick version is that there was a donor who had visited the area a year and a half earlier and attended the church of one of our adjunct faculty members.

And they began, after they went back to their home state after a seven-month sabbatical here, they began sending gifts to the church. The pastor didn’t know these people well and wondered what was going on, but they were sending 50 and a hundred thousand dollar checks out of the blue without request.

And a year and a half later, that faculty member, Jerry, is his name, reached out to the couple and said, we don’t have a lot of needs at the church, but the college is in dire straits. Might you consider something big for the last fully Christ-centered four-year college in the state of North Carolina, in over six weeks of email only.

Never a call, never visit. They never talked to a trustee. They made a 6 million pledge to the college. And so the trustees interpreted that as a miracle, I think rightly they started a search and I started a few months later and we got busy fast. There’s a Gospel Coalition article that was written in 2019 by Sarah Altra entitled The Montreat Miracle.

And if anyone wants to read that, just Google Montreat Miracle Gospel Coalition and the article will pop up. It’s a remarkable story and we do think that God has a future and a purpose for this college, and he made it clearer when he prompted that couple to make that 6 million pledge.

[00:17:03] Tommy Thomas: So what did your first hundred days look like? 

[00:17:07] Paul Maurer: It’s all a blur, Tommy. We knew the clock was ticking even with a 6 million pledge, because at $300,000 per month hitting our back account, you’re getting to $6 million in about two and a half years. We knew that wasn’t enough, but we knew it was something very significant and we considered it what we called gas money.

So we’re fixing the plane while it’s flying. And that was gas money to keep the plane in the air while we fixed it. And when a college has been in merger discussions for a year, there are a lot of things that aren’t going well and that get reconfigured, org charts get squirrely, people leave.

When I walked in the door in July 2014, I had five open cabinet positions and my VP of student life had started on July 1st. He was a green newbie to the role. And so, I had to find a cabinet. I had some interims in place, but I didn’t have permanent people in place. I’d hire a cabinet to a college that had just gone through a near death experience.

And we knew we had to grow enrollment. We knew we had to have a stable enrollment in fall of 2014. And by God’s grace there were, a hundred fifty, a hundred forty-six new students, which is right at the five year average. But you can tell from 150 new students if you know anything about college enrollment, that is just way too small for sustainability.

So we knew that we had to make a promise to the marketplace, but the most important thing that we did was to clarify our Christ-centered identity. We knew that if we were going to be a Christian college, we had to actually make that known and make sure that the core documents of the college, the mission statement, the statement of faith, the vision statement, the community life covenant, reflected a biblical worldview.

The board agreed with that, and we got busy with that and we made some adjustments to the statement of faith. We put infallibility back into the statement of faith in a community life covenant that we added. We affirm that marriage is between one man and one woman as a biblical standard society.

But God’s design for marriage is exclusively one man and one woman. And that life begins at conception. And these are biblical principles that we believe are taught clearly in scripture. And we made those documents a condition of employment for the first time in the college’s history and we took a lot of heat for that.

It got really hot and we took a lot of criticism, and then 30 days later, the criticism kind of dried up, honestly. And the people who were supporting the fact that we took a courageous stand began to come out of the woodwork. They were there on the first 30 days as well, but they were left alone standing after 30 or 45 days.

And so we’ve hired a mission. We have unity on campus, and the families of our region who care about that kind of education, who care about the moral compass for their sons and daughters, caught their attention. So all that bad publicity was actually great publicity for the college.

[00:20:43] Tommy Thomas: So on your team you mentioned you had one rookie. Did you have a kind of a mixed bag of seasoned veterans and upstarts, or did you have to groom everything from the get-go?

[00:20:56] Paul Maurer: It was a bunch of interims and so I had to hire five cabinet members for my first year, and a friend of mine suggested that we were a version of Ernest Shackleton’s or Antarctic Exploration. And if you know anything about those years, Shackleton had an ad that he placed in the London Times in 1912 and the ad read as follows, men wanted for hazardous journey, small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger, safe return, doubtful, honor and recognition in case of success.

And I gulped a few times, and then I went, that’s actually who we are. We’re the Christian college version of that. And I began to overtly recruit with that ad to the cabinet members who I was interviewing as finalists. And my simple question was, I asked them, I pulled up my phone, read this aloud, and then I would ask the question, does this ad excite you?

Hint, hint. The only right answer is something like, oh yes, very much. And that’s the team that I hired to come here. In 2014 and 2015 they came from all over the country. My CFO had a Harvard MBA. My Chief Academic Officer had his PhD from Cornell. And these were really high achieving, high academic, highly experienced people.

But they came because they believed in this mission. They wanted to give their lives to something bigger. And I think they loved the challenge and to some degree they were willing to take the risk. Becuase I told them the only thing I can guarantee you is that you’ll work harder than you’ve ever worked and you’ll work faster than you’ve ever worked.

And beyond that, I don’t know if we’re going to be open six or 12 months from now. And they came. 

[00:22:49] Tommy Thomas: So fast forward we’re recording this in May. You’ve got the fall quarter coming in August. What do things look like for the next term? 

[00:22:58] Paul Maurer: So enrollment has grown here by over 70% in the last eight years, our traditional undergrad.

And we’re anticipating a new record enrollment for the fall of 23. We’ve added a number of new programs in our hundred percent online division. Most of those are master’s programs. We now have 10 master’s programs. Seven of them are in the last two years, and our online enrollment is beginning to grow because of those master’s programs.

And then our signature program has become cybersecurity and we’ve added a organization underneath Montreat College to help harden the cybersecurity defenses for the state, but also to generate a new revenue stream for the college because in the end, we’ve got to build a new business model, a new revenue economic model for the college, which is not aimed at survival, but is aimed at thriving. We have no interest in survival. We have interest in leadership and thriving, and so we’re trying to build something that’s very robust in both educational and economic terms. 


[00:24:10] Tommy Thomas: Let’s say that you had another one of these mega donors or foundations that came up to you and said they had a pretty large amount of money that they would give to you for your next big venture.

Do you have a guess of what that might be or that might be classified? 

[00:24:28] Paul Maurer: I wouldn’t say it’s classified, I’ve got two or 300 million worth of those ventures because our vision is to become the school of choice for thoughtful evangelicals for the Southeast United States, the Premier Christ Center University for the Southeast United States. Combining academic rigor with biblical orthodoxy. We have a whole campus to build, to sustain the growth or to accommodate the growth that we envision. We’d like our traditional undergrad to be between 1,200. We’re a little under 700 today, and our facilities are maxed out.

We’ve been out of beds for five years. We’ve been renting beds from camps and conference centers for five years now, six years. We’ve got residence halls to build. We’ve got academic buildings to build. We’ve got athletic facilities to build. We’ve got the property. We just need the capital to build the campus.

I need to build the endowment. We know that. We have to be able to fund scholarships beyond our discount rate, operational scholarships and we want to start things in surrounding cities around us. I’m looking to really become the college to be known and trusted as is the premier Christ Center University.

Like in the city of Charlotte, which is two hours from us. It’s far enough for the students, not too far for the parents and because we’re the last Christ-centered four year college in the state of North Carolina, that’s a footprint that we need to grow. So I literally have, Tommy, probably two, three, four hundred million worth of projects and we’re ready to go with a good bit of that.

We just need the cash to do that.

[00:26:24] Tommy Thomas: I want to bring this part to a close before I switch over to board service. What’s the main thing you wish somebody had told you earlier in your career? 

[00:26:34] Paul Maurer: Not to think more highly of myself than I ought, pride is a way of creeping in with leaders. It certainly did with me and my first presidency.

This is my second presidency and my first presidency, honestly there was a part of me that thought they’re lucky to have me. And I know that humility was not at the top of my value proposition. I don’t think I was overbearing or narcissistic or anything but if you don’t have humility as the top of your value proposition as a leader, and you allow yourself to drink some of the Kool-Aid that’s going to have a bad effect.

And honestly, probably someone probably did tell me that ahead of time, I’m not sure I had the ears to hear it or that I heard it, but I wish I’d have embraced that lesson earlier in my career than I did. 

[00:27:39] Tommy Thomas:  If you were speaking next week to a group of incoming presidents from small liberal arts colleges around the United States, what would be the theme of your address?

[00:27:51] Paul Maurer: I started my first presidency 13 or 14 years ago, and I remember going to the president’s conferences and coming back after two or three of those, and I said to my cabinet, here’s my takeaway, change or die. And then I was out of the presidency for a couple years. I began to go back to those meetings again.

When I came to Montreat nine years ago, and I came back to my cabinet, I said, they’ve inserted the words fast change, faster, die. We’ve taken on the mindset of a startup. So we consider ourselves a 107 year old startup. We’re not a turnaround. We’re not maintainers, we’re not traditionalists. We try to employ the principles of a startup, meaning we’re creating something new.

And so I think in the next five to 10 years, we’re going to see a pretty dramatic change in the number of colleges and universities in the United States. The enrollment cliff is real. The declining birth rates are real. And it’s going to have a really major impact on the number of schools that close.

The most vulnerable schools are the state universities that are losing enrollment and not filling space. So I think in those cases, the state systems will do mergers. Privates aren’t prone to mergers. And so I think we’re going to see more closures of small privates unless the presidents of those institutions are creative and agile and willing to take risks and invest heavily in things that work and starve things that aren’t, and end tenure and act more like a startup.

Fail fast, make decisions with deliberation and speed. And I think to the degree that we’re going to see success among the privates in particular, I think the presidents will embody some combination of those qualities. 


Join us again next week as we continue this conversation with Paul Maurer. That episode will take a deep dive into Paul’s experience in board service and governance. 

“Today’s college president must be creative, agile, and willing to take risks. Invest heavily in things that are working. Starve things that aren’t.” -Paul Maurer

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