Office of the President

Why Do We Talk So Much About Community?

Board of Trustee Meeting, Dec. 3, 2011

I

We are a residential public liberal arts college. The residential nature of the enterprise is not incidental to our mission, and we don’t house students on campus simply to assure they show up on time to class (although this is a fortuitous byproduct). Living and participating in the campus community is an essential aspect of the education we provide. By learning to feel responsible for the quality of life around us – for the welfare of others, for both the social and natural ecology, for the ways in which human beings operate in small and large groups – we expect our students to carry such habits of being with them, as a part of what it means to be a St. Mary’s College graduate. To signal the centrality of our residential and co-curricular component, and to recognize her established record of contributions, I’ve elevated Dean of Students Laura Bayless to the level of vice president, full partner in the senior leadership of the College.

This fall we had an outbreak of mold on campus: a perfect storm (the pun is intended) of factors in two residence halls that  to elevated mold levels with origins deep into the buildings’ interior structures. Speedy evacuation of students into local hotel rooms brought trauma to the community. I never convened the senior staff to say, this is unacceptable,--there was no need to; it was a universally shared sentiment. Proposals were offered: let’s bring in trailers and build a Mattapany trailer park; let’s turn the O’Brien Athletics Center into a shelter; and from our waterfront staff at the Muldoon River Center, there’s an empty cruise ship en route to South Carolina from Newfoundland, passing the Chesapeake in a few days, if we think we can make it work.

The events had the quality of inevitability one associates with a mission-driven enterprise. I think this is why the media found it a compelling story. It wasn’t crafted or prepared in advance, like a press release, but it displayed how an institution with a clearly defined reason-for-being responds to a threat to that essential nature. We sought no coverage of this event; on the contrary, Keisha Reynolds and her staff had to manage the scores of inquiries that resulted in over 350 unique media hits around the world. Reporters are attracted to compelling stories because stories attract audiences and consumers. What makes a story compelling is that quality of inevitability; when the reader or the listener can say, “yes, that’s how it has to be.”

A lot of what we’re doing on campus is returning and reshaping the College to how it has to be at a residential liberal arts institution. One story we did seek out was exposure in the Chronicle of Higher Education, calling attention to our mission. The author, Beckie Supiano, captured the essence of our reason-for-being in the title to her story: “When the Answer to 'Access or Excellence?' Has to Be 'Both': St. Mary's of Maryland, a public honors college, wants to be affordable while offering a private liberal arts-style experience.” Her story focused on admissions and financial aid, central enterprises to be re-framed to drive our mission of access. Successfully reshaped since the arrival of Maureen Silva is our Advancement operation, focused on mission-critical enterprises.

  • We have three outstanding proposals near or above the $1M mark, and have a fourth pending submission later this month;
  • Last month we launched a $500K Baltimore City Scholarship Initiative, based on a 4:1 challenge grant from France Merrick, and  by our first off-site fundraising committee, consisting of representatives from the board of trustees, alumni, parents, and the Baltimore community

Philanthropy, in Advancement, has to do with attracting support for our compelling story; at the same time, we continue to examine our performance on the spending side. We have stressed throughout the first 18 months of my presidency the importance that “high standards of academic excellence” drive our funding decisions. This has led to the creation of greater efficiencies in our summer programs, for example, and has  Dean of Faculty Beth Rushing to initiate an external review of our programs abroad. It is always tempting to want to spend a lot of money on items and enterprises that “bring exposure to the College” or that “serve the external community” in some fashion. But as the Sea Voyager episode shows us, concentrating on our core mission is what will build our reputation, and the best way we can serve the external community is by providing their sons and daughters a world-class liberal arts education in a public, residential setting.

On the spending side of the ger, I call the Board’s attention to the fact that emergency mold remediation and student relocation resulted in an approximately $3M unexpected hit to our budget. Many colleges, especially those reliant as heavily as we are on tuition revenue, would not be able to withstand an unplanned expense of this magnitude. I commend the deliberate, fiscally responsible policies advocated by Vice President of Business and Finance Tom Botzman, for having prepared us in advance for the crisis.

II

Community, on a college campus, is not just about money any more than is it solely about media exposure. While many of our students—and their parents, and even on occasion faculty, staff and trustees—make a distinction between the campus and “the real world,” I would argue the observation to be wide of the mark. True, the College is separate from the external communities of county, state, and nation. But the walls do not keep reality at bay; rather, they increase the pressure within. A residential college community is more akin to a hyper-reality, where the divisions, distinctions, and legacies that persist into the present are magnified due to the intensities of living associated with communities of learning. As a mission-driven institution, we exist in closer proximity to our ideals than does the external world. Everybody knows that in America, ideally, “all men [and women] are created equal” – that we exist at some distance from that ideal does not keep us up at night as we go about our business. At St. Mary’s College,

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

to quote our founding legislation, had better at least keep awake my senior staff at night, and become our all-consuming business. In other words, as an educational institution, it is our express business to work diligently to move us closer to our stated ideals.

Within this hyper-reality of our residential campus, when we fall short of our ideals, trauma ensues in various degrees. The Sea Voyager episode provides the framing example. But a less pleasing, and equally compelling story has to do with race relations on campus. The “all are created equal” ideal is a central part of our mission: those terms, “affordable to all and thriving on diversity” are in our legislated mission not because they are easily attained, but because these are ideals we’ve fallen short of, nationally, and particularly so within our educational institutions. We’ve experienced a few incidents this semester – one of which resulted in a campus email from me, which we shared with you – that compel us to action. In the “real world” of the external community, these incidents would have been taken in stride, as we rely on the course of events to bring us closer to national ideals. But within the hyper-reality of the College, single incidents become “teachable moments,” occasions for community self-examination and reflection. In an educational institution, we do not understand ourselves to be reliant on the course of events for our progress; on the contrary, we feel the burden of being responsible for the course of events, as we prepare leaders, agents of change and progress, within this hyper-reality, for their role in the world of less-intensity.

To maintain a community that strives towards ideals, we must create an atmosphere where problems and departures may be raised without fear of reprisal. If we are dedicated to continuous improvement, to steady refinement, then problems, once identified, will be welcomed as opportunities to move closer to our stated mission. We seek to create an atmosphere on campus where students, faculty, and staff feel it their duty to “speak truth to power,” in the Quaker phrase, so that those charged with making decisions and establishing agendas on campus have direct lines of communication with those who experience the daily life of the campus community. I’ll leave you with some examples of what we’ve planned to strengthen and maintain our community in the months ahead:

  • We’ve schedu a president’s forum for next semester on managing difference on campus, asking ourselves how well we are doing toward the ideal of “thriving on diversity”;
  • In response to a federal Department of Education directive, the College has designated Human Resources as the Title IX coordinating office;
  • I’ve also asked HR Director Sally Mercer to bring a proposal to me to create a whistle-blower procedure for College employees;
  • Athletics Director Scott Devine is convening coaches and players to examine the status of athletics integrity on campus;
  • CTSS recently completed a nationally-benchmarked survey of Informational Technology services at the College, and has been using the results of the survey to initiate a campus-wide discussion of needed improvements;
  • The president’s cabinet will hold a retreat in the spring to examine all aspects of the Sea Voyager episode, to learn from the event and establish protocols for future challenges;
  • In February, we will hold an all-campus meeting to begin to articulate the College community’s dreams and ambitions for the strategic vision.
  • The Cabinet continues to examine board communication protocols, so that board members are sufficiently informed of developments on campus as they occur.

All in all, it’s been a productive, instructive, and rather fast-moving semester. Heartening this fall was the tremendous support from faculty and staff to help displaced students — whether through having to reconfigure classes, volunteering to help move boxes to the ship, or providing moral support and a friendly ear that can only be done in real time, in person. Residence Life staff merit particular admiration –  by Joanne Goldwater, this team of dedicated professionals went above and beyond anyone’s ideal as they moved students not once but twice (and soon for a third time) to help us maintain our residential community. The series of events taxed our facilities team, and I commend Chip Jackson not only for his operations skills, but for his ease on camera as well. Human beings will always stumble, the ancient Greeks knew that it is error that defines the human condition. But stumble we may on occasion, I can assure the Board that we are heading in a direction consistent with our mission and ideals, supported by a thoroughly dedicated community of staff, students, and faculty.

That concludes my report, Madame Chair.