The Public Honors College
St. Mary's College of Maryland

Reaffirming the Principles of our Founding Legislation

President Joseph Urgo
St. Mary’s College of Maryland
St. Mary’s College of Maryland - Board of Trustees Meeting - May 2011

Thank you Madame Chair, and good afternoon members of St. Mary’s Board of Trustees, faculty and staff, students, friends of the College, and guests. I want to talk today about our status as a public trust, and specifically, our accountability to the State of Maryland stemming from our distinctive legislative origins. As the State’s public honors college, we are 19 years old this year—about the same age as a first-year college student. Like many an adolescent, we sometimes feel a lot older (indeed, we were born into a heady legacy as a Monument school), and at times a lot younger than two decades – we still, now and then, do something for the first time that other colleges have been doing for decades. As an institution, we’ve one foot in our origins and another in our potential, and we negotiate the pulls of both legacy and ambition to articulate our place in higher education.

But then something happens. A wake up call, as it were; some harbinger of that emerging maturity strikes our path and has us stop to reassess—are we where we want to be?; are we heading in a direction we can affirm with confidence? What happened this year is a request from the House and Senate Budget Committees, in their Joint Chairmen’s Report, which I’ll read to you now:

Report on St. Mary’s College of Maryland Tuition Rates: The committees recognize that the legislation that created the funding formula for St. Mary’s College of Maryland (SMCM) would limit increases in State funds in exchange for greater autonomy in college operations, and that in-state undergraduate tuition rates would likely be higher than other public institutions. However, the committees are concerned with how much more expensive SMCM has become compared to other Maryland colleges. SMCM operates as a public honors college and receives State funds calculated by a formula that accounts for inflation. Since SMCM did not participate in the State’s recent tuition freeze and is also exempted from Chapters 192 and 193 of 2010 (which set a goal to limit future tuition increases), SMCM’s in-state undergraduate tuition rate was $5,652 more expensive than the State average in fall 2010. SMCM should review its current tuition level relative to its peers and whether it is affordable for Maryland students and determine if a tuition adjustment is needed. If so, the college should discuss what changes are needed and what would be required from the State to accommodate a reduction in resident undergraduate tuition. A report should be submitted to the committees by September 1, 2011.

As Board members know, to cover an increase in the share of retirement benefits owed to the state and to continue to fund operations—without adding new programs and while yet maintaining reductions in staff—the College administration found need to increase the cost of attendance for 2011-2012 by six percent. We did so while other institutions in the state kept increases to three percent, thanks in part to state funds provided to buy-down that increase from five and six percent. The Joint Chairmen’s Report contains a timely request: as I have said more than once this year, our cost increases, together with an insufficient financial aid budget, threaten our capacity to fulfill our mission.

St. Mary’s College has a legislated mission. I refer to House of Delegates Bill No. 1327, by the Speaker and the Southern Maryland Delegation, introduced and read first time, February 5, 1992 and approved by the Governor, May 12, 1992.  (“The Governor” refers to former St. Mary’s College trustee William Donald Schaefer.) I do not know of another college in the country with such a specific directive in advance of any charge, mission, or intent adopted by its faculty. According to House Bill 1327:

“St. Mary’s College of Maryland seeks to offer the combination of 2 ideals: the promise of public education, affordable to all and thriving on diversity, and high standards of academic excellence;
“St. Mary’s College of Maryland is committed to continuing its mission of providing an excellent education to qualified Maryland students, regardless of their ability to pay, through the use of scholarship endowments  and other such methods as determined by the College’s Board of Trustees;
“It is the intent of the Administration and the General Assembly to ensure that St. Mary’s College of Maryland maintains a commitment to the enrollment of minority students.”

I want to reflect for a moment on the visionary quality of this legislation. First, the twin mission:

(1) the promise of public education, affordable to all and thriving on diversity, and
(2) high standards of academic excellence

Throughout public education, programs that are affordable to all are not, typically or even by design, ones that seek as well to maintain high levels of selectivity and high standards of academic excellence. More often, what is affordable to all and thriving on diversity are institutions that often struggle with standards of academic excellence, and often with low retention and completion rates. Twinning these missions was visionary in 1992 and remains our chief challenge today.

The legislation goes on to make this charge explicit. We are to provide this rigorous, honors-level education to qualified Maryland students, “regardless of their ability to pay,” and we are to do so “through the use of scholarship endowments and other such methods as determined by the College’s Board of Trustees.”  Here we encounter our current challenge, for we have entered an era when more and more student families do not have the ability to pay and we have not created sufficient funds in scholarship endowments and other such methods to meet financial need. We have done well in raising private funds for capital projects, and these state-of-the-art facilities support our educational program. However, our scholarship funds are far from state-of-the-art; in fact they are inadequate to meet our legislated founding mission. For this reason I have charged Vice President for Advancement Maureen Silva to make the raising of need-based scholarships the institution’s highest priority. Scholarships enable St. Mary’s to recruit and retain an academically talented and diverse student body and provide access to students capable of academic success. Students, honored to be selected as the recipient of a named scholarship, work diligently to retain this financial support and often reciprocate with scholarship contributions of their own when they are capable.

Our legislated mission further declares, “It is the intent of the Administration and the General Assembly to ensure that St. Mary’s College of Maryland maintains a commitment to the enrollment of minority students.” In this charge we have not failed, but we lag behind institutions similar to St. Mary’s College. What is at stake here is not a simple quota system to create a demographic to satisfy the State. At stake are the long-term survival of the institution and the intellectual preparation of our students. The national demographic is changing and will look dramatically different in another generation. Intellectual preparation for the shifting demographic means our students need to interact academically and socially with a diverse set of peers in an inclusive and complex student body. I will be charging a campus task force this fall with studying our recruitment and retention policies, and will report to the Board throughout the year on its findings.

We’ve been looking this semester at our deployment of financial aid to determine its effectiveness in meeting our mission. The 2011 Heidrich report is in your Board binder, which contains the initial findings of the financial aid task force convened by Assistant Vice President for Academic Administration Mark Heidrich. According to the report:

The data reveals that as a student’s ability to pay for college decreases the likelihood to be awarded a merit scholarship decreases. This can be largely explained because the experience leading to a high ranking for a merit award heavily favors [wealthier] students in the selection process.  The task force recognizes the challenge of recruiting highly qualified and competitive students but the evidence that the merit awarding process favors the students with the lowest dependence on financial support is cause for concern as we consider the College’s goals of access and diversity. 

Although the task force has completed its work, additional findings will be collected and appended, including a student survey designed to assess need- and merit-recipients’ perceptions. My initial sense of the report is that traditional merit scholarship monies do incent high-capacity, low-need students to attend St. Mary’s College, and that these students do well here—I congratulate them on their achievements, and we welcome them to our academic community. Nonetheless, these students are not those identified in our legislation as mission-critical—those with the least ability to pay, including middle-class students, who do not qualify for federal assistance, but whose full need we cannot meet; students who may compete less successfully for merit awards not because they are less likely to succeed at St. Mary’s but because their scholastic preparation is not as sophisticated; or more tragic, students who get a merit award of $5,000 and whose families cannot afford the remainder of the bill, and for whom we lack the resources to meet their financial need. Every one of these students whom we lose compromises our legislated mission, erodes the success of our charge, and calls into question our ability to succeed as a public trust.

The public honors college is nineteen years old this year, as I pointed out earlier, about the age of a new student at St. Mary’s College. I’ve just completed my first year as President, and feel like an old freshman now, a little less naïve, a little more acclimated, and a lot surer of what it is I think I need to do here. In four years, by 2015, the year of the demisemiseptcentennial  (175 years of education at St. Mary’s City, since the founding of the seminary in 1840), I would like to see us in the midst of a major campaign to meet our legislated challenge: “St. Mary’s College of Maryland is committed to … providing an excellent education to qualified Maryland students, regardless of their ability to pay, through the use of scholarship endowments  and other such methods as determined by the College’s Board of Trustees.” Over this past year, Maureen and I have found untapped capacity in our alumni base. Many of our graduates have been professionally successful. They crave a closer relationship with St. Mary’s College, and they have the compassion and resources to help us address this challenge. We will work in the year ahead to formulate an institutional campaign strategy to make more widely known the nature of the public-private partnership at the core of our institutional identity.

I look forward to this challenge with tremendous enthusiasm. Our product—the liberal arts in the public trust—is admired nationally by educational professionals and State officials. Our legislated mission is visionary and consistent with national educational priorities. We have facilities in place and in the queue for completion; we have a faculty devoted to our mission, and a committed Board of Trustees who support this mission with expertise and resources.

And we have a formal request from the State of Maryland asking that St. Mary’s College “review its current tuition level relative to its peers and whether it is affordable for Maryland students and determine if a tuition adjustment is needed.” I believe I can predict the answer to that. The State request continues, “If so, the college should discuss what changes are needed and what would be required from the State to accommodate a reduction in resident undergraduate tuition.” Our report, due September 1, will articulate the nature of the public-private partnership necessary to fulfill the visionary legislation that created St. Mary’s College as a public trust, with its two ideals:  “the promise of public education, affordable to all and thriving on diversity, and high standards of academic excellence.” And further, I assure the Board that along with our request will be a clear commitment from us to do our part to raise critical financial aid from private sources, in keeping with our original, founding legislation.     

That, Madame Chair, completes my report to the Board.

Aerial view of St. Mary's College of Maryland campus

St. Mary's College of Maryland
18952 E. Fisher Rd
St. Mary's City, MD 20686-3001
240-895-2000