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Lee Capristo, editor
The Mulberry Tree
Phone: (240) 895-4795
18952 East Fisher Road
St. Mary's City, MD 20686
Written by Lee Capristo
In the 13 years since Jane Margaret "Maggie" O'Brien was sworn in as president of St. Mary's College of Maryland in July 1996, she has dramatically reshaped the College in appearance and in substance. Physically, the campus changed in size and shape as a 10-year building effort added 86 acres, increased student housing by 50%, and added a new academic building (Goodpaster Hall), a new student services building (Glendening Hall), a new campus center, and two new recreational facilities (the ARC and the James P. Muldoon River Center). The campus extended overseas with the establishment of study centers in The Gambia, West Africa and Alba, Italy. A formal affiliation with Historic St. Mary's City in 1997 provided the College and the City with a wealth of shared curricular opportunities, evidenced in the creation of museum studies and democracy studies programs and the founding of The Center for the Study of Democracy.
Backed by her energy and guidance, the Heritage Campaign successfully raised $40 million to support academic and studyabroad programs through a new Core Curriculum, to grow the residential campus, and to offer annual lecture series named after Ben Bradlee and General Andrew Goodpaster, and important community programs like the River Concert Series. Forty new student scholarships and nine endowed professorships and chairs are credited to her efforts. *Under her leadership, the College has been consistently ranked as one of the top public liberal arts colleges in the nation by U.S. News & World Report. The Washington Post observes that St. Mary's is "a place to get an Ivy League education at a public school price." * As Maggie O'Brien prepares to step down from the presidency in August and readies for her St. Mary's duties in Oxford, Lee Capristo, assistant vice president of publications and media relations, sat down with her.
Tell us about your formative years and how your own education has directed your presidency.
My parents met in the East Wing of the White House in the late 1930s, and after my father's return from nine years in London during World War II and my mother's work for the Foreign Service in Greece and Norway, they re-met in Washington and married in 1950. My parents directed me into an array of activities as a child including piano, Girl Scouts, art lessons, and Japanese language when we lived in Hawaii. My mother is a first-generation American, the daughter of Danish immigrants who came to the U.S. just after World War I. My father's family was a mix of immigrants and first-generation American, all Irish!
My education was influenced largely by the times in which I grew up and, to my good fortune, by the places where I grew up. My father was in army intelligence in World War II and when the National Security Agency was founded in 1952, he continued for another two decades to serve as a government civilian. I was born in Washington, D.C., at a time when the U.S. was strengthening its science and technology infrastructure; and from an early age, I was greatly encouraged in my interests in science and the natural world both at home and at school. I had a little science laboratory at the back of our house which was in a wooded grounds, and so I was always up to some project-either at my makeshift laboratory or outside collecting leaves or acorns or doing a Girl Scout project. The 1950s and early 1960s were an inspirational time in America and both of my parents were motivated to provide opportunities for my brother and sister and me far beyond their very modest upbringings. Both of my parents modeled excellent friendships and demonstrated a particular commitment to neighbors in need, and so the virtue of community service was instilled early.
I went to college, first at the University of Delaware, shifting from nursing to biology and eventually to chemistry, but I found the science curriculum to be limiting. What I wanted was a liberal arts curriculum, not just a science curriculum, so in my sophomore year I transferred to Vassar and became a biochemistry major. There I enrolled mostly in science classes, yet my most memorable classes were African-American Literature and Portrait Art. I wasn't very confident in either of these classes and particularly disappointed with a B- in the latter. Yet I held on to my art portfolio for years, unwilling to give up what I thought were pretty good drawings. I wish I had saved one of these drawings in particular, because the model seemed so unusual to me. I felt quite grown up doing drawings of nudes. It was a nice contrast to chemistry lab.
You returned to Delaware for your Ph.D. in chemistry, then taught at Middlebury College. You hadn't been teaching long when you were tapped for a deanship there- what did you learn from that?
I became a faculty member in chemistry at Middlebury in 1980 when I was 26. In 1989 I became associate provost and then dean of the faculty and enjoyed supporting the sciences through fundraising with institutional grants from national foundations, such as the Keck Foundation, the National Science Foundation and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. As the primary grants manager, I was working with some excellent scientists and administrators from a number of colleges in our science consortia. During my three administrative years at Middlebury I was also granted fellowships with the Kellogg Foundation and the American Association of Colleges and Universities. I learned the value of moving ideas forward to implementation with key grant funding and with the support of colleagues who enriched and improved on ideas and often assured their successful outcomes. Importantly during this period, I grew beyond a disciplinary interest in the sciences and was drawn to international education especially. Middlebury's world of languages and international programs was captivating. I remain grateful to the president and several colleagues there who helped me up the ladder in my early administrative positions.
You left Middlebury in 1990 to become president of Hollins College (now Hollins University) in Roanoke, Virginia. What was that like?
Having grown up around many Hollins alumnae, I was honored to lead the college for five years through a significant curriculum advancement and fundraising campaign. I recall the first or second day in July as a new president when I decided to walk to work (I lived on the campus) and I arrived looking rather ratty, with burrs in my shoes and scratches on my legs from crossing an unmowed field. The emotional challenge of being CEO made me feel similarly disheveled at times during that first year when I learned that the other facets of a presidency-public relations, public policy, even a public family life-were embedded in the position. Many of the trustees at Hollins are accomplished alumni and their support and advice were critical to my growth. For example, Wyndham Robertson '58 very thoughtfully suggested that a turnover in the CFO position could cause unanticipated problems, and soon enough I understood her advice. She is one of a handful of alumni whom I admire deeply and who have shaped the last quarter century of Hollins' strategies.
When you became St. Mary's president in 1996, how did you assess the institution's needs? Were there any immediate concerns?
Having just completed a $42 million fundraising campaign at Hollins, I understood the very significant need for St. Mary's as a public-private model to get thoroughly immersed in a campaign as soon as possible. This meant a full strategic plan first, which in turn meant honest self-assessment mixed with the interests and possibilities that faculty and staff bring every day to the classroom and residential community. We had some very clear deficiencies in classroom and laboratory space, in athletics, in on-campus rooms for students, and in lectures and community events, to name a few. Alumni were eager to be more engaged and informed. I was also eager to provide new opportunities for beneficial collaborations with Historic St. Mary's City and others. We set about over two years deciding collaboratively what we wanted to raise funds for and then went to work. [St. Mary's successfully completed its $40 million campaign in December 2005.]
When you first arrived, were you prepared to jump into the politics of Annapolis and did you have any experience in that arena? Who were your advisers? How has it been to work with four different governors?
Several St. Mary's presidents, including May Russell and Ted Lewis, are still remembered for their prowess in winning legislative support for St. Mary's. I had little experience with this world and was greatly advantaged by the high visibility Ted brought to the school. Having worked together on the 1992 legislation that secured our honor college status, Governor Schaefer and Ted were particularly close and this offered me a rare insight into the importance of executive leadership in State politics. Governor Glendening remains a personal friend as does Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, who showed incredible support by directly overseeing our affiliation with Historic St. Mary's City. The $50+ million funding for the Maryland Heritage Project grew directly out of their support and that of the Southern Maryland delegation, in particular the leadership in the general assembly of Senators Mac Middleton and Mike Miller and Delegate John Slade, and now John Bohanan, Johnny Wood, and Tony O'Donnell.
Congressman Steny Hoyer, Senator Ben Cardin, and General Andy Goodpaster were excellent trustees and mentors in helping to shape an honors college of substance, with the notion of honor behind and beyond the curriculum. Governor Erlich was highly supportive and generous, abiding by the terms of the 1992 legislation funding agreement, and Governor O'Malley supports this as well, despite difficult state fiscal conditions that provide pressure to do otherwise. So I feel very fortunate again by timing, having the opportunity to work on behalf of the College during a time of generous support of higher education in Maryland.
Did you have a model for what you want to see the College become?
Yes, I did and that model was compatible with the aspirations of the faculty and many longterm overseers of the College. For example, Dr. Steven Muller, president emeritus of Johns Hopkins University, was chair of the St. Mary's College Board of Trustees for 10 years and he wanted the College to provide a private education at a public cost. Dr. Wesley Jordan, dean of admissions and professor of psychology, was instrumental in shaping the honors college curriculum in 1996, which gave us interdisciplinary programs and stepped up the rigor and creativity of the curriculum with St. Mary's Projects. During this new period for me, aspirations were in abundance and the challenge was to harness the best ideas, improve on them, and let the world know about St. Mary's College of Maryland.
Your achievements are many. For which would you most like to be remembered?
I hope to be remembered like [former president] May Russell, willing to look ahead and realize that a more competitive St. Mary's required some upgrades, some changes and a cooperative and determined style. I've often been accused of being ambitious, and that's fine by me. I've had the privilege of working with exceptional people, including Provost Larry Vote, Torre Meringolo, and Tom Botzman. We have really enjoyed working together and I recognize the value of a committed and aligned team. I also love the arts, and I'm proud to have worked with very fine faculty artists like Sue Johnson, Merideth Taylor, Michael Glaser and Jeff Silberschlag.
In December 2001, the college dreams of 42 Washington, D.C., former Bruce-Monroe Elementary students were nearly shattered after discovering that a promise of full college scholarships upon their high-school graduations would not be fulfilled. The foundation set up to support them was bankrupt. President O'Brien stepped in and offered full tuition scholarships to any former Bruce-Monroe student who could meet St. Mary's admissions requirements. That fall, five former Bruce- Monroe students joined the Class of 2005, and four years later, all five graduated from college.
You have made a point in your presidency to reach out to inner-city D.C. and Baltimore youth for whom college is not financially an option. The Bruce-Monroe students are just one example. How did it make you feel to see all five of them graduate in May 2005?
I'm most proud of helping to make opportunities possible for students whose likelihood of a B.A. and advanced degree was less than 2%. And I'm counting on those graduates to pass on similar opportunities in their communities.
Have you kept a "to-do" list while president and if so, what's still on it and what has been a pleasure to check off the list?
I'm delighted that the international programs have expanded in tandem with the new Core Curriculum and that the breadth of choices and their availability meet the challenge of a relatively quick development. When I came to St. Mary's, less than 20% of students studied abroad. By contrast, the Class of 2012 indicated in its first year that fully 80% plan to study abroad. Preparing for that to occur in 2010-2011 is something to work on now. I look forward to the College continuing its work with Historic St. Mary's City and the renewed energy that the City's Regina Faden and Henry Miller have brought to the advancement of academic and research interests.
As your next assignment, what do you hope to achieve through your work with the Centre for Medieval and Renaissance Studies (CMRS) program in Oxford?
CMRS offers both student and faculty opportunities for study and research. St. Mary's has just negotiated the placement of 25 students per semester at CMRS, so this is hugely satisfying. There are several improvements for orientation and student activities that students have recommended and links to other institutions in Oxford, including the Oxford Union and with St. Peter's College. I'll help work on these and continue to develop internship opportunities for students in Oxford. Drs. John Feneley and Nicholas Crowe are also very interested in developing the CMRS 's reputation as a research center for scholars in 15th- to 18th-century history, linking England and America. This is exciting for the College and also for Historic St. Mary's City.