With his 50-year college graduation anniversary coming up in 2019, Mars Hill University alumni Dr. Dan Lunsford won’t have to travel far for the celebration—he’s the school’s president.
“It has been a phenomenal experience. It’s the best job I’ve ever had, it’s the hardest job I’ve ever had, and I treasure it very much,” he said. “One thing that is very constant, from then to now, and will remain a hallmark of this place, is the high degree of personalization. I knew the faculty, and they knew me, where I was from and what I was studying, and they cared about that. They sought me out to encourage me and provide opportunities beyond the required courses and required work. And that still happens today.”
Established in 1856, the private, co-ed, liberal arts Mars Hill University has become the heartbeat of the Western North Carolina mountain town that shares the same name. For the 2017–2018 school year, the institution welcomed 1,277 students, a rising attendance number that ideally complements the university’s climbing retention rate.
“We have become a little bit more selective in terms of students being prepared for college, entrance requirements specifically,” Lunsford said. “Secondly, we’ve changed some of our programming for freshman, making them as connected to the campus as quickly as we can. What we know about college students is that those who stay get involved in activities and programming beyond the academics. So, we’ve been much more intentional in that engagement early on, and we’ve had some measured success with this.”
“The landscape for Mars Hill University is not unlike the rest of higher education. We have some great opportunities and some pretty significant challenges.”
—Dr. Dan Lunsford, Mars Hill University president
In 2013, the school changed its longtime name of Mars Hill College to Mars Hill University, a move that Lunsford and the institution viewed as vital to the continued success and growth of their academic programs.
“It means a great deal, particularly when we look at what we do programmatically,” Lunsford said. “Since that time, we’ve launched one more master’s program in management, and we are launching another one in criminal justice. Moving to university status [was important]. When you market master’s programs, it markets much better as a university than as a college.”
Lunsford noted the unique programs Mars Hill University offers, many of which are now at the master’s degree level, with special attention paid on opportunities for local and regional residents.
“We have to build on the programs that we do particularly well, so that’s a big piece of what we do—market those programs and build up those programs that have potential,” he said. “For instance, we have a zoology program—not many schools have that. Then, criminal justice, which has been a very strong program for us—we’re adding a master’s in that. We have a new nursing program that has a strong interest, and we’ve built scholarship programs particularly for students from Western North Carolina.”
Lunsford also pointed to the ongoing needs of the student body, whether it be modernizing residence halls or available capacities within the classrooms. He’s well aware of what it takes to properly equip the 21st century college student. Mars Hill University addresses those needs at every corner, while at the same time remembering what it was like when Lunsford himself was in those same academic shoes.
“[Since I was a student here,] it has changed from a physical structure, for sure. We’ve also tried to preserve the historic, iconic structures, while at the same time building new structures that are needed in today’s curriculum,” he said. “The landscape for Mars Hill University is not unlike the rest of higher education. We have some great opportunities and some pretty significant challenges.”
This post is adapted from our annual Welcome to Western North Carolina magazine. Click here to read more online, or click here to order your own free copy. Learn more about Mars Hill University at mhu.edu.