By Barry Merrill
Nine years ago Dr. Phil Kerstetter and his wife, Mary, moved from Kansas Wesleyan to Mount Olive College to lead the school. It is a very different school today, and it is, in his words, very much the same school it has always been.
President Kerstetter, during an interview in his office a week after graduation and a few days’ vacation, reflected on his leadership of what has grown to become the University of Mount Olive, while still holding on to the founding eastern North Carolina values of a faith-based liberal arts school.
He officially retires as president on June 30.
“It is not until you talk with people on campus, off campus, in the community, and in the church, that you can really start to formulate what are workable goals.
“I felt there was really great potential for it to be a larger institution, moving into not only having undergraduate programs but graduate programs. I saw possibilities, but moving from possibilities to probabilities to realities takes a pretty concerted effort with everyone working together.”
He also talked about strengthening the relationship with the Free Will Baptist Church, the town, and offering graduate education. “I think it has come together remarkably well.”
Dr. Kerstetter also talked about engagement with students; reaching out and interacting with students. While UMO has the Evening College and online programs and they are important, Dr. Kerstetter maintains that a major part of what UMO has to offer comes from the on-campus experience, learning from roommates, teammates, and others.
He talked about the intentional recruitment of international students attending a small school in eastern North Carolina and how they contribute to the educational experience as they offer unique and different perspectives.
“I think there is a lot to be said, particularly for the traditional age student who is trying to figure out who they are,” in helping those students at a liberal arts school.
He discussed what he sees as a dynamic tension between the pressures of preparing students to move into specific jobs immediately on graduation versus a liberal arts education which gives students a broad base foundation.
While he related personally he has held a number of different jobs in education, he has been in education the whole time. Graduates today may be faced with changing careers, not just jobs, as many as seven or eight times, due to changes in technology and the economy.
Referring to the value of a liberal arts education, “those are the skills that are needed to be a contributing member of society, when I am confronted with a roommate who has a different way of looking at things. Your ability to communicate, to problem solve, think creatively, think critically, and get along with other people, those are the skills we will increasingly need in the future.
“Our covenant is based on ‘Love thy neighbor as thyself,’ and in this marketplace of ideas, agree to disagree on things in a respectful manner.”
Dr. Kerstetter pointed out that in the founding vision of Dr. Burkett Raper, Mount Olive College was based in the liberal arts tradition. “We were going to be a lot more than just a Bible college.”
One of the great successes at UMO has been the growth and development of the Agriculture program at the school. When asked about his hand in that, Dr. Kerstetter responded, “I stayed out of their way.”
He acknowledged that the program had been started before he came to the campus, but only had a handful of students. The credit for what has happened rests primarily on the leadership of the program, and he particularly pointed to Dr. Sandy Maddox. “She’s a force to be reckoned with.”
“It is one of the unique features of an institution like ours.” He went on to say it makes perfect sense, given where UMO is, in the heart of an agriculture region. He also stressed that UMO fills a growing need for a growing and more sophisticated agriculture industry today.
The nature of UMO fits many of the schools that the Ag students come out of, in smaller towns in eastern North Carolina. “They are going to go back and serve this region.”
“The statistic that really shocked me was that 25% of our Ag majors came from farms.” He related that to the donation and opening of the student farm and how many of their students were not raised on the farm, but got interest in FFA in high school. It also relates to enhanced careers in agriculture through technological and developments of the industry and secondary industries.
In contrast, Dr. Kerstetter discussed talking to the Board of Trustees of the University. When discussing the transition to a tobacco-free campus, almost every trustee talked about their experience growing up on the family tobacco farm, and how the occasional unpleasantness of that experience, back then, helped them to see the need for higher education.
(In part two of the interview next week, Dr. Kerstetter discusses the future of the Evening College and Online Education, the special relationship between the town, the business community, and the University, the importance of athletics at UMO, and his personal plans in retirement.)