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Lee Capristo, editor
The Mulberry Tree
Phone: (240) 895-4795
18952 East Fisher Road
St. Mary's City, MD 20686

St. Mary's Welcomes a New President

Written by Anne Grulich, Editor

Photo by Claudette Ferrone

St. Mary's has a new president! On February 22, 2010, the Board of Trustees unanimously elected Dr. Joseph R. Urgo the next president of St. Mary's College of Maryland. Urgo took the helm July 1, 2010. He follows in the footsteps of 24 other presidents and principals who have led St. Mary's since 1840, and is only the fifth male to serve in this capacity.

Urgo's aspirations for St. Mary's will intertwine with the fabric of our long history, shaping the future while being instructed by the past and tempered by the needs of the present. He brings a spirit of collegiality and intellectualism as well as a deep commitment to ensuring St. Mary's lives up to the public in its ‘public honors college' moniker.

This isn't something he simply preaches. It's something he lives. Both Joe Urgo and his wife, Lesley Dretar Urgo, are first-generation college graduates. When they visited campus in March they met with faculty, staff, and students in both formal and informal settings. Following his self-described ‘compassionate' management style, his goal is to meet with everyone during his first year to learn what each person brings to his or her role at St. Mary's. "Access to education is not an esoteric matter," our new president stressed in the all-staff meeting where he introduced himself in 100-year old St. Mary's Hall. "Our mission is to make the academic rigor of a residential liberal arts education available to all members of the coming generation who possess the will and the capacity to meet its challenge," Urgo stated. And he stressed that the mission of St. Mary's College is not the purview of the faculty alone, but extends to staff and all who work at the College. "We're all educators here. It's not just what we do, it's how we do it-every time we interact with students, we should do so with an eye towards the educational implications of our action."

Joe Urgo brings decades of experience in public education and private liberal arts institutions. He has served as vice president for academic affairs and dean of faculty at Hamilton College in Clinton, New York, since 2006, leading the 183-member faculty and overseeing academic support programs and centers as well as Hamilton's overseas and satellite programs, and athletics. He was acting president at Hamilton for the spring 2009 term. Urgo's contributions to Hamilton also include coordination of its strategic planning process, and $1 million in Mellon Foundation grants. He instituted the position of associate dean for diversity initiatives, and created annual faculty scholarship and creative activity awards at Hamilton. Urgo is a professor of English with a Ph.D. from the Brown University Program in American Civilization (1985). He has written six books and his research interests focus on the works of 20th-century American novelists William Faulkner and Willa Cather.

From 2000 to 2006, Joe Urgo was professor and chair of the English department's 37 full-time faculty members at the University of Mississippi. Before that, he was a member of the Bryant University faculty in Rhode Island for 11 years, and held a Fulbright lectureship in Spain in 1992. Urgo also taught as an Andrew W. Mellon Fellow in American Studies and was assistant professor of English at Vanderbilt University from 1986-89; a visiting assistant professor of English at Syracuse University from 1985-86; and a teaching fellow while earning his Ph.D. at Brown University from 1983-85. He earned his B.A. from Haverford College, M.A.L.S. from Wesleyan University, and M.A. and Ph.D. from Brown University.

Photo by Claudette FerroneUrgo is a native of Hartford, Connecticut, and Lesley is from Akron, Ohio. Lesley is a working partner in Joe's professional life, with plans to engage in the volunteer realm once the Urgos have settled at St. Mary's. In Providence, Rhode Island, Lesley managed an urban reforestation, public/private partnership program for 10 years. While in Mississippi, she performed grant writing and research duties for the University of Mississippi's Foundation and its Continuing Education outreach program. Lesley has a B.A. from the College of Wooster in Ohio and a master's in American Civilization from Brown University. The Urgos have one son, George, a 2008 graduate of Haverford College, who is currently employed as the admissions coordinator for Drexel University's creative arts and therapy master's program. Their two dogs, Dino, the Dalmatian, and Doodle, the Jack Russell terrier, have come with them to Maryland, as has Joe's Vespa motor scooter. The Urgos live within walking distance of the campus.

"Here are some indelible convictions: ... a belief in meritocracy; in a variety of types of intelligence; in the malleability of identity; in the infinite capacity of human beings to bridge divides; in the futility of certainty about situations, people, or experiences; and finally, in the necessity to employ compassion as a counterforce to fear. Compassion recognizes human struggle as endemic to human life; fear is blind to such complexity, either in self-defense, or as the basis of antagonism. Educational institutions, especially residential liberal arts colleges, are designed to alleviate fear through compassionate, collaborative endeavor. Upon reflection today, there's nothing else I could possible devote my life to so completely."

From Hamilton College - First in the Family - Joseph Urgo

Alumni were asked via St. Mary's Facebook if they had any questions for the incoming president. Here are several of your questions with Urgo's replies.

Q. Is there a particular Cather and/or Faulkner quote that inspires you and why?

A. Because I Iove what I do and feel privileged in doing it, I have been inspired by a quotation from Willa Cather's The Song of the Lark: "Your work becomes your personal life. You are not much good until it does."

Q. How do you plan to balance the growth of the College with the intimate atmosphere that drew so many of us there in the past?Dr. Joe Urgo (photo by Barbara Woodel)

A. If we lose that intimate atmosphere, we will have abandoned the core of our mission as a residential liberal arts college. Now, scale has evolved, and whereas many small colleges were below 1,000 students a generation ago, we now recognize as "small" colleges with 2,000 or 2,500 students. Remember that the eligible college population has expanded in the last 30 years as have communication technologies that supplement our sense of community. At 2,000 students, St. Mary's College retains an intimate feel to contemporary students.

Q. What do you think will be the greatest challenge facing St. Mary's during your tenure?

A. The greatest challenge, given the recent performance of the economy nationally and globally, will be to maintain and expand routes of access to higher education, especially for highly motivated students who are drawn to the rigorous academic challenge of residential liberal arts colleges.

Q. How much time will you spend sailing at the River Center?

A. That depends on how good a student of sailing this landlubber proves to be . . .

Q. How do you plan to reconnect many of the alums that may have lost touch with the school?

A. Personally and tirelessly! Their alma mater should be a sustaining resource for alums-and we need our graduates, recent and distant, to help guide us as we shape the future of the College. I'd like to show our alumni how the College can continue to inspire them, continue to have meaning in their lives, and continue to benefit by their experiences. We mark "Commencement" because it is not the end but the beginning of a life shaped by educational habits of mind, and by an ongoing relationship with an educational institution.

Q. What kind of music do you enjoy?

A. Recent performers I've seen live include Leonard Cohen, Stevie Wonder, Etta James, Lucinda Williams, and the Robert Cray Band-all among my favorites. Every spring is Joni Mitchell season, also, (but she doesn't tour, alas). I enjoy what we used to call crooners (our Dalmatian, "Dino," is named for Dean Martin),-individual voices have always been a passion, in music and in literature. Tom Waits is a favorite, also Frank Sinatra, Connie Francis, Patsy Cline. I grew up on blues and rock and roll-the iPod will still fire off the Beatles with some frequency. I enjoy north Mississippi and Delta blues in particular-R.L. Burnside, Bill Morganfield-and Chicago, Hubert Sumlin, Eddie Shaw. Among the newer performers, I get a real kick out of Lady Gaga, Rihanna, Hurricane Chris-but my love of language makes me regret the level of profanity in much of the current genres, also.

Peacocks (photo courtesy of SMCM)Q. Will you bring back the peacocks? The campus is not quite the same without them.

A. Are they on study abroad? I'll have to look into this. Flannery O'Connor, one of America's great literary voices, raised peafowl and wrote an essay about them called "The King of Birds," where, as I recall, she said they'd have the last word. But then, perhaps, more appropriate for St. Mary's might be the sights and sounds of the goose, the heron, the osprey?