Office of the President

Opening Exercises, September 7, 2012

St. Mary's College of Maryland
Joseph Urgo, President 

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Welcome to the 2012-2013 Opening Exercises, an opportunity to reflect on the start of the academic year, and on our hopes and aspirations for St. Mary’s College.

My address has two parts today. The first is about our resources. The second concerns our desires.

We begin this year with additional state resources, applied directly to relieve the burden of rising tuition. And thanks to deliberate budget planning, we are in a position at long last to raise salaries across campus. Details will be forthcoming, but I am pleased to report that we have been able to exceed state recommendations in order to reward our staff and faculty, whose work advances the College in so many ways.

We will continue to seek additional resources in order to enhance the educational experience of our students, and to reward our faculty and staff for their efforts.

Now let me say a few words about our most valuable resource, the resource that truly makes the engine of the College go forward. I am thinking about the men and women who maintain the buildings, fix the problems that arise, clean up after the office day’s work is done, or who arrive before offices open and prepare the workplace for another day. I am thinking of the men and women who maintain the landscape, the lawns and open spaces, who keep the pathways safe as well as appealing to the eye, as sources of inspiration. 

I am thinking of the men and women who make repairs, who build and transform our physical plant, who deliver the mail, who support academic programs, who prepare bills, collect funds, and disperse payments, who support administrative functions, who prepare documents and tally up end-of-cycle totals, who allocate and apply, who attend planning meetings and debriefings and who set up chairs and tear down sets, who paint and caulk and who prepare meals, serve food, re-shelve books, answer online queries. 

I am thinking of all those who answer email promptly (and can remember when someone said how much time email was going to save us), who make web pages, write press releases, manage calendars, handle requests and demands and issues and problems and predicaments and situations and some things that just require someone to listen and acknowledge that yes, we human beings are capable of making a mess of things sometimes but we’re also, because we’re human, able to forgive and move forward in good faith. 

I am thinking about the men and women who, after the day is done, respond to an anxious email from their home after dinner. Or those who, walking down the path or across one of our wonderful green spaces, pick up a wandering piece of paper or something that missed the trash can, and take it there. Or who come across a sad looking student and ask, can I help? Or who bring the watch or the wallet or the keys to lost and found. And I am thinking of the St. Mary’s College employees who respond not with “that’s not my job” but with “that’s something I can manage;” who think not so much about how things are not right and more about how we can make things better, together.

What am I describing in these musings? What kind of place is this, that attracts the very best students, faculty, and staff to its shoreline? 

We are the state’s honors college. We have an honors curriculum. Our faculty have constructed a world-class academic core that expresses our commonly held values concerning a liberal education. It consists of vital areas of intellectual competency and off-campus experiences that signal the conviction that a liberal education is not only relevant to the current age, but an essential source of cognitive energies that will advance human endeavor globally, in service projects, and in practical, day-to-day work situations.

We have a honors faculty, dedicated to this curriculum and as well to their areas of specific scholarly  and creative expertise – faculty who present at regional and national conferences, who submit their work for peer review, who keep their coursework current and up-to-date by engaging in research, in scholarly writing, in creation and performance, both to advance national and international intellectual lines of inquiry and to assure that what is being delivered to students in their classes is at the cutting edge of human endeavor in all areas and at all levels of our curriculum. 

And, we have honors students, convened here today as they embark on the new academic year -- hyper aware, perhaps, that the adjective that adorns their status here – “honors”—is at once descriptive and, well, a little weird. 

Well, maybe it is, maybe not. 

It is if we think it obligates anyone else but us, I suppose. The honors designation means that we are all--students, faculty, and staff—learners, seeking to do better. As learners we’ll not rest on what we’ve done in the past;  when we think of our best work we know it’s coming, it’s just ahead, it’s the vision we carry about what we can do. 

And this brings me to part two. We have the resources for the honors component. What do we want to do? What, in a word, do we desire?

We’ve been quoting College trustee emeritus Senator J. Frank Raley a lot since we bid him farewell from this earth last month. No one better encapsulated the honors college and the public liberal arts mission than J Frank Raley, when he wrote, “Let us begin our work to reach where we didn’t think we could.”

I offer these words as a shared desire: “Let us begin our work to reach where we didn’t think we could.”   An honors college demands honors students, taught by honors faculty, and supported by an honors staff – all of us striving to do better, all of us who, having reached our goal, immediately set the goal higher, because we are defined not by achieving what’s possible but by daring to reach where we didn’t think we could. 

Asked about a masterpiece of literature he had written years before, a twentieth century writer referred to his work as “a most splendid failure.” How could it be a failure?, he was asked. Because, he responded, as fine as it was, it did not measure up to his vision for it. 

What is my desire for this honors College? The St. Mary’s College of Maryland that I hold dearest is the nation’s premier public liberal arts college. In my mind we are to be the model of national and international emulation for delivering the world’s most valuable—and most urgently needed—method of developing young minds, one historically reserved for the wealthiest classes, and making it “affordable to all.” We are the premier public model for state funding, for curriculum, for intellectual and experiential diversity among our faculty and students and staff. The potential to be known far and wide as the nation’s premier public liberal arts college is what I see when I walk the path, when I travel off campus, when I meet with state legislators and with alumni, with friends of the college, and in day-to-day meetings on campus. 

“Let us begin our work to reach where we didn’t think we could.” To reach. The origins of the word are with concepts around stretching, ranging far and wide, traveling. To stretch oneself. What does it mean to be an honors college? Let us begin our work, our reach, our travel; let us stretch beyond what we thought were limitations, and align our achievements with what we did not think we could do. 

The honors criterion is the essence of desire, and desire is the essence of being. We reach. We stretch. Our desire and our passion drives us forward toward the better community, the better phrase, the better preparation, the better execution of our plans, better than we thought, better than we thought we could. I ask us all to envision the St. Mary’s Way as our desire: “By choosing to join this community, I accept the responsibility of helping to build on its past heritage, of living its ideals, and contributing to its future.”

Welcome to the 2012-2013 academic year, the 172nd academic year to convene on the banks of the St. Mary’s River, and on the 20th anniversary of the public honors college. Let us begin our work, and let us reach where we didn’t think we could.