Office of the President

Address to the St. Mary’s College of Maryland Board of Trustees

Address to the St. Mary’s College of Maryland Board of Trustees
February 25, 2012
Joseph Urgo, President

The News

The news went public this week regarding a $1M gift from Joseph and Kathy Garner – Joe is a 1974 graduate of St. Mary’s College of Maryland. I met Joe for the first time soon after arriving at St. Mary’s – he stopped by to offer greetings and a welcome. We had a long conversation about access to college, about the particular kind of education that St. Mary’s College provides, and about the particular kind of student for whom that education is the ideal match. We also discussed, as I recall vividly, the waste of human capital that follows when students who would thrive at St. Mary’s College are relegated – by financial situation – to alternatives that fall short of that ideal.

A recent articulation of this situation appeared in the Washington Post:

Do we risk recreating a two-tier educational system? The answer to that question is yes, and the consequences are significant. We tend to offer some – typically our more disadvantaged, low-income populations – a more limited education that may prepare them for jobs for two or three years before they need to be re-trained. Meanwhile, we tend to offer others – disproportionately a more privileged group – a lifelong, liberal education that appreciates over time, preparing them for entire careers, and for jobs that may not even exist yet in our rapidly evolving economy.

You hired me in large part to raise funds and so I want you to know about our successes. But this one is so gratifying to me personally that I feel a profound humility when I consider the Garner’s philanthropy. For as long as I have addressed the Board on these public Saturday morning sessions, I have expressed my commitment to the residential liberal arts college model, and to securing routes of access to that education for students whose sole inhibitor is financial means.

The visionary quality of the Garner gift is twofold. First, it recognizes that financial need not only stands in the way of access to education, it also threatens the full measure of that education by inhibiting such co-curricular dimensions as international study and internships. As you know, the Garner gift is designed to support the whole-student experience. Second, the gift recognizes the asset represented by St. Mary’s College to the local community. Academically driven students are often driven to wander – their restless minds are matched by restless spirits in search of what the world offers. The Garner gift is a reminder of what lies close to home for students in Southern Maryland, reminding us that our true relation to the community is in the educational program we offer to the rising generation. Currently, some 200 students from the county attend St. Mary’s College, or 10% of our student population. In many ways, the Garner gift validates the emphasis of this presidency on access to education, and on the College’s place in the local community.

St. Mary’s Day

Twenty years ago, when the honors college was launched, the College suspended classes for a day and spent the time in reflection and planning for the school’s transformation. Now, at the twenty year mark, the campus paused again in its activities for “St. Mary’s Day” this past Wednesday and divided the day into two parts. We spent the morning on strategic visioning, and the afternoon centering on our charge from the state to be a community that is “thriving on diversity.” More than 400 students, faculty, and staff members participated in the day’s events – brainstorming sessions, presentations of surveys and studies, performances, and interactive exercises. Longstanding faculty member Robin Bates sent this email to faculty, staff, and students the day after:

I want to thank Beth Rushing, the organizers, facilitators, and performers, and indeed the community as a whole for yesterday’s campus workshops. I had forgotten how powerful it is for us all to come together and address what it is that holds us together. When we do, we see ourselves less as employees and clients of St. Mary’s and more as owners. I particularly appreciated the opportunity, in the morning, to talk with those in housekeeping and maintenance and with other staff members and, in the afternoon, to participate in very moving conversations about the challenges posed by race, class, and ethnic diversity at the college. It reminded me how we are all involved in a bigger enterprise than our day-to-day job tasks. So again, thank you. - Robin

The “moving conversations” to which Professor Bates refers centered in part around a remarkable production first staged last semester, and reprised for St. Mary’s Day.

With the exception of a post-baccalaureate gap spanning two years and involving an MG Midget, I’ve been “at” college since starting my freshman year some thirty-eight years ago – spanning nine institutions, public and private. I have seen the “race and other” conversation staged, broadsided, and performed dozens of times. Never, in all those years, have I seen it presented with such honesty, insight, courage, and – most importantly of all – with such hopefulness and confidence that this group of students will move us forward. After the performance of St. Mary’s Hear and Now I asked the players what is was about St. Mary’s College that allowed them to speak so plainly and so effectively about issues that were far from abstract, but held such personal significance. They said it was the culture in place here, at St Mary’s College; the freedom students had to embark on intellectual exploration without worrying about being judged, that it was “the St. Mary’s way” to allow the heart to speak through the intellect.

To provide a taste of the day’s energies, here is a sampling of the ideas we generated:

  • Engage faculty to work with alumni relations, to develop programs that engage alumni at the department level, and communicate the institutional needs through the academic program; 
  • Explore the financial impact of our independence. What intrinsic value do we get out of it? Can we sustain ourselves to the level that was expected of us when we agreed to that independence? 
  • Create more meaningful, significant student work options on campus, including student work in trades, housekeeping, and grounds. o Consider a “re-orientation” for juniors, to complement the first-year orientation program.  
  • Recruit more out-of-state students to bring greater geographic diversity to campus. 
  • Increase private fund-raising for financial aid. 
  • And in many ways and from various constituencies: increase and maintain venues and events that allow for such conversations, and include trustees in the process.

This is a random sampling – Dean Rushing is in the process of compiling and indexing.

The Present Situation

Endowment income flowing from Foundation accounts is at about $200,000 annually; at its peak before the economic downturn it was at $800,000. That income loss has resulted in numerous unfunded mandates on campus. The College is presently below its targets for out-of-state students, resulting not only in decreased diversity but in decreased tuition revenue. The result of both of these factors is that the College is presently far more tuition-dependent than it should be – resulting in the prospect of raising tuition at a higher rate than we would prefer.

The Foundation is in the process of reviewing its investment polices and is hearing proposals from money managers. Vice President for Advancement Maureen Silva is in the process of planning for a major campaign that will focus on financial aid and support for the academic program. The College has resumed a planning process that had been suspended for a year while we installed a new Dean of Faculty and a new Dean of Admission and Financial Aid. We will emerge from these planning processes with specific goals for fundraising, out-of-state recruitment, and with long-term budget projections. We will bring a draft of the strategic vision, with targets and benchmarks, to the April Academic Affairs Committee meeting. We will bring to the Board for discussion in May and approval in the fall a plan with a comprehensive mission, a vision that leads to goals and objectives with clear metrics and time frames. Activities undertaken on St. Mary’s Day encourage us to move forward with inclusive planning on campus, and to engage trustees for their participation, input, and counsel.

At present, however, we are in the predicament of meeting shortfalls. We’re not alone – our private peers have all seen large tuition increases while endowment income declined, and state institutions around the country have had double-digit increases in some cases. In Maryland, public institutions are raising tuition between 3 and 6%, even with state support to keep those levels in check.

The Case for Optimism

I attended a hearing in Annapolis this week to explore “performance based funding” for higher education in Maryland. USM, Morgan State, and the state’s community colleges all discussed what this might mean to their institutions—there was understandable concern that the state would adopt common sets of measures across very different kinds of institutions. I was asked for the position of St. Mary’s College. My response was that starting in 1992, we have had a Board of Trustees devoted to operational oversight and fiduciary responsibility exclusively at St. Mary’s College – in other words, we have practiced performance based funding for twenty years. When operations fulfill our mission, we fund them; when they cease to perform adequately, we make changes. As a result of this model, we have gone from an unranked, respectable but unremarkable school to a nationally ranked, residential liberal arts college. Our success is attributed to a productive partnership between the College and a dedicated collection of Board members who ensure that we remain focused on our stated goals and mission.

May 2012 is the twenty-year mark of the legislation creating Maryland’s public honors college, with its twin mission of high academic standards and public access thriving on diversity. Our upcoming campaign will be targeted to the twin goals specifically: support for the academic program and for financial assistance to insure access. Our future is not so much about great changes as it is about getting deeper. Getting deeper as a liberal arts college means watching for the markers of academic success: Rhodes, Watson, and Fulbright awards; externally funded research; a first-choice college for National Merit Finalists; alumni achievements in all professions and callings; decision-making that continues to be mission-focused and performance-based. I solicit the support and participation of the Board – we need your wisdom in fulfilling the promise of our institutional model, we need your passionate commitment to St. Mary’s College to ensure the viability of our collective future.

Madame Chair, that concludes my report.