Long a lover of history, Gerald W. Gibson is sharing his perspective on a pivotal time for Maryville College — the 17 years he spent as its 10th president.
Nearly a decade after his retirement, Gibson’s memoir is being launched with an event at 2 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 7, at the Blount County Public Library.
“Tenth Watch: Maryville College at the Millennium Mark” traces a period when the school reached record levels in enrollment, student quality, fundraising and staffing.
When he took office in 1993, the college “was in rather desperate straits,” Gibson said. “People need to know what happened during those 17 years.”
“Somebody’s going to write this,” he said. “I might as well do it because I know better than anyone.”
Gibson said several people suggested he write the memoir before he left office, and he worked on researching, interviewing and writing the manuscript over about three years.
He began with the calendar books maintained by his assistant, Laura Case, which included not only his appointments each day but also notations she made for him at the time.
However, he organized the 402-page book not chronologically but by themes, such as the financial and programmatic changes, as well as the college’s relationship with the Presbyterian Church.
Gibson credits the strategic planning process he brought to the college with the progress achieved during the time. While predecessors looked ahead with vision for the college, Gibson said it’s critical to follow the dreaming phase with detailed planning and action by involving faculty and staff from across the campus.
“I share what I learned,” Gibson said, including this lesson for whoever takes over next year as the 12th president: “Keep your eye on enrollment, because that is the engine for a small liberal arts college.”
“Most people think that the financial hope for a small college is finding some rich person who will give you a lot of money,” he said.
Gibson credits the college’s steady increase in admissions until the Great Recession, from about 750 to 1100 students, to Donna Davis, who served as vice president of admissions, and her staff. He said they met often to review progress and what to do next.
Enrollment rose about 5% a year, he said, and “that made all the difference.”
When the recession hit, however, “students fled immediately to state schools that were less expensive,” Gibson noted. Big universities and Ivy League colleges had to make cuts as well.
That had a huge impact on morale, he observed, after faculty and staff had come to believe the college was beyond the touch of history outside the campus. While that was a frightening time for some, he said, “we got through it.”
Another potentially devastating event during his tenure was the fire that destroyed Fayerweather Hall in May 1999. Gibson was in Florida at the time and when he returned 24 hours later, he found alumni taking pictures of the smoldering ruins and crying.
“There was a silver lining to the cloud,” Gibson said, with the construction of a more modern and more usable Fayerweather Hall.
The biggest change to the campus during Gibson’s term was construction of the Clayton Center for the Arts, which opened in 2010.
“I knew that we needed a new fine arts facility the whole time I was here,” Gibson said, but the college didn’t have the funding. It was a colleague from Leadership Blount, which Gibson attended his first year at MC, who suggested a partnership between the college and local governments.
The more than $47 million facility was the most expensive and most complex project Gibson said he had ever been involved in.
Before Gibson stepped onto campus in December 1992, he only had driven past Maryville College on his way to the mountains when he was a graduate student at the University of Tennessee.
“I had a lot to learn,” Gibson said, but he liked the idea of contributing to the progress of a small, church-related liberal arts college.
MC is “a rare kind of institution,” he said, more mission oriented and with people who know and understand the college’s history.
“I’m glad I had the opportunity to serve at that kind of institution,” Gibson said.
Current President Tom Bogart announced in July that he will end his term as the 11th president in June 2020. Maryville College is accepting applications through Dec. 23 for its 12th president, with plans to name Bogart’s successor in February.
Gibson’s book will be available for $15 at Saturday’s launch, with all proceeds going to Blount County Friends of the Library (BCFOL). For more information or to reserve a copy of the memoir, visit tenthwatch. com.
“This memoir will be of interest to anyone connected to Maryville College — current and past staff and faculty, as well as alumni,” Vandy Kemp, who served as vice president and dean of students during much of Gibson’s tenure and now is a member of the Blount County Friends of the Library board, said in the college’s new release about the event. “It will also be of interest to historians, as well as those in educational leadership, higher ed administration and organizational management.”