Handshake to Headshake
An attempt to merge two southeastern Christian colleges collapsed this week amid intense alumni and faculty opposition, a real estate hiccup and an air of mystery.
The effort to merge Point University in Georgia and Montreat College in North Carolina, which are about a five-hour car ride apart, began in January 2013. At a gathering of 60,0000 Christian students in Atlanta, a trustee from Montreat approached Point President Dean Collins to see if he would be interested in a deal.
Whether the plan made sense from the start depends on whom you ask.
Collins said the conversation with the trustee, who he declined to name, set off a round of exploration.
There were similarities: kindred degree programs and religious missions. There were differences: Point is a nondenominational university and was once affiliated with the Church of Christ, and Montreat is still affiliated with the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). There were opportunities: economies of scale and the chance for Point, which already has five sites for adult programs, to easily expand into North Carolina.
The institutions' boards made their plans public last summer. Immediately, Montreat alumni were outraged. But others, including the faculty, kept their powder relatively dry until it became clear in the past few weeks that the Montreat Board of Trustees’ merger plans could close the campus in the town of Montreat, a lakeside community not far from the arts and crafts haven of Asheville.
The fed-up faculty sent the Montreat board a letter last week expressing dismay over those plans and over a communications vacuum left by the president and the board that was filled by Facebook and rumors. The college’s interim president and its board chairman did not reply to multiple attempts to reach them both on Tuesday.
“Rightly or wrongly,” the faculty members' letter said, “this has created a slow erosion of confidence in the direction that our leadership is taking us.” They called for the resignation of all the trustees who supported a merger that would close the campus.
On Monday, Point’s board met and voted to kill the merger plans.
The decision was announced in separate statements by both colleges on Tuesday.
Kevin Auman, the chairman of the Montreat Faculty Executive Committee, said the basic breakdown happened over the future of the traditional college at Montreat. He said some college trustees believe there is a limited future for residential education. But the main question for Montreat alumni, faculty and students became whether Point would keep the campus open.
"When it became clear they felt they couldn't make that commitment, it was a problem," Auman said.
Administrative leaders at both Point and Montreat blamed legal complications and opposition by Montreat alumni, students and faculty.
At the heart of legal obstacles were land-use restrictions on Montreat’s main campus, which is conditionally granted to the college by the Mountain Retreat Association -- the Presbyterian Church’s largest conference center. The deal, memorialized in successive records dating back decades, limits Montreat's ability to sell off the land.
The agreement also says Montreat’s board can’t have a majority of members from an ecclesiastic group other than the Presbyterian Church – there does not have to be a majority of Presbyterians, but there cannot be a majority of, say, Baptists.
Collins said the agreement was a red flag.
“So we raised that flag, believed that could be a potential problem, and we [notified] the school that there’s something here,” he said. “We’re not sure how to get around this or over this, but we kind of raised this as a red flag and it kind of put us on pause as we were trying to sort through all of that.”
That, combined with the vocal opposition, made the Point board pull back. The university is no stranger to controversy: it faced some opposition when it changed its name and moved from Atlanta to near Georgia's border with Alabama several years ago.
Since then, Collins said, the college has grown to 600 students from 400; it also has 1,350 adult learners. He said Point won't give up on trying to merge with other institutions, something he expects many Christian colleges and small privates will be exploring.
At Montreat, a college of about 400 students on campus and 450 nontraditional students, Point’s decision was a surprise.
Willie Mangum, a trustee and president of the Montreat alumni board, opposed the merger but could not explain why it didn’t happen.
“It was the outcome I fought for, but it was not the outcome I expected,” he said.
The end of the talks with Point leave unanswered questions about what happened over the past year and why.
“There are questions that need to be answered, that the Montreat community wants answers to,” Mangum said.
Now, Mangum and others believe the united group of alumni, faculty and students is a dream scenario for a new president, even if that same group wants to depose many of the current trustees and perhaps the president.
“This is a leader’s dream -- the college is ready for a dynamic leader and dynamic board to lead them into the next 100 years of this college,” said Matt Liebler, a member of the college's alumni foundation.
Yet it’s not clear if the trustees will search for a new leader or how they will deal with the faculty’s request that many of them step down, something the board is expected to consider at a meeting this weekend.
There are also lingering questions about the college’s finances, which presumably prompted the merger talks in the first place, but which appear to be improving since Montreat was taken off its accreditor's sanction list two months ago.