Folks at the 650-student Montreat College may soon find themselves rubbing elbows with the top minds at the National Security Agency as a result of the college’s elite cybersecurity program, according to Paul Maurer, president of the college.
During a Feb. 4 meeting of the Council of Independent Business Owners, Maurer told attendees that the private, Christian liberal arts school, which had just landed $30 million in state grants for the college to support its cyber programming, has rapidly become one of North Carolina’s foremost cybersecurity institutions.
“We consider cybersecurity to be the economic and security threat of our age. It’s that big,” Maurer said. “Cybercrime was estimated to be at about $6 trillion last year. If you were to convert that to the GDP of the world’s largest economies, that would make cybercrime the third largest economy on the planet, after the United States and China.”
Maurer said that enrollment in Montreat’s cyber programs — which include an online associate’s degree in cybersecurity, four-year bachelor’s degree, as well as its Carolina Cyber Center, which provides immersive and hands-on learning opportunities — grew from eight in 2015 to more than 240 in 2021.
Despite that momentum, the college programs hit some roadblocks along the way. In 2019, Gov. Roy Cooper vetoed the 2019-20 state budget, which included a request for $20 million in funding for the programs. The request for funding was then rolled into House Bill 398, but lost support from local Democrats in part over the college’s religious commitment. Employees at both the college and the Cyber Center are required to sign a “Community Life Covenant” reflecting conservative Christian values.
The funding was supported by Democrat Rep. John Ager, who told Xpress in 2019 that, “The rebellion in my party centered around the large appropriation going to a private institution when there were several cybersecurity programs in our university system. … They felt like the $20 million was a sweetheart deal by North Carolina Republicans to support a conservative Christian school.”
But in December, the General Assembly, along with the support of Cooper, passed the 2021-22 state budget that included $30 million for the college to support its cyber programming and the Carolina Cyber Center.
The Carolina Cyber Center’s executive director, Adam Bricker, told Xpress after the meeting that the center will separate from the college to become an independent nonprofit at some point during 2022, after which Community Life Covenants will not be required by staff.
Incidents of cyber attacks have occurred in Western North Carolina at businesses as well as governmental offices. In 2020, Mitchell County Schools was a victim of ransomware when hackers infiltrated the district’s network and demanded payment, according to an Aug. 28 Asheville Citizen-Times report. Asheville-based allergy specialists Allergy Partners experienced a cyber attack Feb. 23, 2021 in which hackers demanded $1.75 million, according to a report filed with the Asheville Police Department. And in May of last year, Gov. Cooper issued a state of emergency after hackers shut down the Colonial Pipeline that interrupted fuel supplies across the Southeast.
Maurer estimated that the financial impact of cybercrime could increase by as much as 15% per year, increasing the global impact to more than $10 trillion by 2025. He also noted that despite the demand for skilled employees, cybersecurity as an industry is facing workforce shortages.
“[Cybersecurity staffing issues] existed long before the labor shortages that we’ve seen during COVID. And the problem of the cyber workforce talent gap continues to grow,” he explained. Maurer noted that there are more than a half-million unfilled jobs in cybersecurity in the United States. He told members of CIBO during the meeting that the college’s cyber center and programming is focused on preparing students to protect critical areas of government infrastructure, as well as the private sector, against cyberattacks.
“As we look at utilizing the grants that the state North Carolina has entrusted to us, we’re looking at how to leverage those grants for the greatest common good for the state of North Carolina,” he said. The college has not yet decided which government infrastructures the programs will focus on, Maurer said, “but we’re going to take a hard look at water, the electrical grid and the financial sector. These are the big areas and great vulnerabilities for us, for our region, for the state.”
He also said that the Carolina Cyber Center is available to assist business owners who experience a cyberattack or hacking.
“[Business owners] often don’t know what to do in those first 24 hours, and they’re critical hours,” Maurer said. “If you are hacked, reach out to us. And we’ll try to give you the best guidance we can get.”