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Top leaders resign at Mars Hill College

MARS HILL, N.C. (BP)–President Max Lennon and Chancellor Robert Knott resigned their positions at Mars Hill College on Jan. 24. The resignations were announced in a statement from the executive committee of the college’s board of trustees.

“It is with much reluctance, but with a firm focus on the future, that we accept the decision of these two distinguished gentlemen,” said Board chairman Kyle Carver. “The leadership, service and passion these two educators have shared with the College will be missed.”

Carver announced on Jan. 25 that Dan Lunsford will serve as interim president. Lunsford has served as dean of the School of Education and Leadership since October of 1998.

“With a measure of reluctance and a great sense of humility, I have agreed to accept the unanimous offer of the Executive Committee of the Board of Trustees to serve as interim president of the College, effective immediately,” Lunsford said. “I do this for two reasons: my concern for and devotion to Mars Hill College and my absolute respect and appreciation for the faculty and staff of the college.”

Lunsford added that he hopes to lead the college forward in a constructive, positive manner, focusing on “what Mars Hill College is about — teaching and learning in the Mars Hill environment.”

Lennon, who had served as president since March of 1996, had come under fire from faculty members who expressed disappointment in his leadership of the small liberal arts college. Areas of contention reportedly included faculty pay, hiring practices, and the creation of a foundation in 1998 to raise more money for the school.

Lennon’s previous experience was mostly in larger universities, including Clemson University, where he was president from 1986-94. He came to Mars Hill from Eastern Foods, Inc., where he was chief executive officer.

Representatives of the school’s 85 faculty members had met with Lennon in December and with a committee appointed by the trustees to address outstanding issues between the faculty and administration.

Associate professor of English and elected faculty spokesperson Carol Boggess told the Biblical Recorder that no one doubted Lennon’s commitment to the college.

“He had noble, honest intentions,” she said. “We just felt his leadership was not effective for this time, at this school. Partly it was fund raising. It was also choosing the right personnel and keeping the right personnel, and keeping focused on our primary mission … our main mission is to equip students … his focus sometimes did not seem to stay on the primary goal.”

Faculty representatives had planned to meet with trustees during a special meeting of the board’s executive committee on Jan. 24, expecting the meeting to include a discussion of their concerns. However, trustees opened the meeting by announcing that the board had already chosen to accept resignations from both the president and chancellor.

The faculty had hoped Lennon would resign, but Knott’s departure came as an unwelcome surprise.

Kathy Meacham, who teaches religion and philosophy at the school, told the Asheville Citizen-Times that faculty members were extremely disappointed the board agreed to accept Knott’s resignation.

Boggess said the faculty still had complete confidence in Knott. “We are very indebted to Dr. Knott. He has really been the glue that has held us together the past few years.”

Students reacted even more sharply after packing into Belk Auditorium Thursday night for a forum with faculty representatives. An estimated 400 students — about one third of the student body — were present. Many expressed dismay that they had been uninformed about the issues and left out of the faculty/trustee discussions. Some said they first learned of the resignations from newspaper accounts.

Students expressed appreciation for both leaders, though they related most closely to Knott. Students rallied the following day, posting numerous signs that pleaded “Don’t Untie Our Knott,” and wearing knotted ribbons in school’s trademark blue and gold colors.

Knott, who taught philosophy at Mars Hill from 1969-75 and 1980-82, returned to the college in 1998 as Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs, and was elevated to Chancellor in August 2000 when trustees restructured the school’s top leadership. At that time, Knott was given responsibility for relating to the faculty and for day-to-day operations at the college. Lennon retained the title of President, with his primary emphasis to be on fund-raising.

Troy Day, a college trustee and chair of the board of the Mars Hill College Foundation, told the Citizen-Times that trustees accepted both resignations because they wanted to start fresh.

“Dr. Knott and Dr. Lennon are the top leaders of the school. The ultimate responsibility lies in their hands,” he said. “We felt the best answer to the situation was to accept the resignations of both holding the responsibility.”

During Lennon’s tenure, the college experienced strong growth in fund-raising, including a number of six and seven figure gifts from private individuals, the securing of a $10 million bond issue from the State of North Carolina, and the development of a $5 million capital improvement fund. The college’s endowment grew from approximately $20 million to over $45 million, according to a college press release.

Lennon also worked to establish the Mars Hill College Foundation and led the college through the “Toward 2006” strategic planning process and implementation.

Mars Hill College will celebrate its sesquicentennial in 2006.

Lennon responded to the situation with grace, telling the Citizen-Times he believed resigning was the right thing to do in the face of faculty unrest.

“We have been really blessed here,” he said. “We’ve had lots of successes. I think it’s time that we have fresh leadership to build on our successes.”

Knott served as president of Tusculum College in Greeneville, Tenn., for eight years prior to becoming chancellor at Mars Hill College. He recently led the school through a successful accreditation process, provided leadership for the college’s current organizational structure, and oversaw an extensive restructuring of the college’s finances.

Knott received the Golden Circle Award, which is bestowed by the faculty and staff of the College, in May 2001.

Knott told the Citizen-Times that his offer to resign was not an empty gesture. “I’ve always said I’m willing to step aside for the good of the college,” he said.
Additional reporting or information provided by Biblical Recorder assistant editor Jimmy Allen and by Marla Milling, Director of Communications for Mars Hill College.

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  • Tony W. Cartledge