Office of the President

The Residential, Public Liberal Arts College: A Sustainable Model?

Joseph R. Urgo
President, St. Mary’s College of Maryland
Address to the Board of Trustees, Dec. 4, 2010

 
I’m starting my sixth month as president of St. Mary’s College. Last board meeting I offered a long view of the College, and asked us to renew the mission, reaffirm institutional foundations, and ensure the public trust as America’s public honors college. Today I’d like to tell you a little more about what I worry about, what threatens us, and what we’re doing about it in terms of goals and strategies this year.

Our challenge is fundamental: is the financial model of the residential liberal arts college sustainable? In their recent book, Why Does College Cost So Much (Oxford UP, 2010) , Robert Archibald and David Feldman identify a college education as one of two human services where the rate of increasing cost has outpaced all other services and goods – the other is dentistry. They use the term “cost disease” to describe the situation affecting higher education: the price of goods used in education rises, including in particular technology costs, but acquiring these costly resources has no effect on productivity, only on quality. Hence, costs rise, efficiencies flatten.

Also driving costs upward are the high wages of technology workers and a highly educated academic services workforce: new technologies and advances in student services push up wages in ways that favor well-educated, expensive workers. Again, acquiring these resources enhances quality but efficiency remains flat. “For the higher education industry as a whole,” the authors conclude, “… the shift toward an ever-more-highly-skilled workforce has not led to any measured productivity gain for the sector as a whole. Costs must go up as a consequence.” (69)

The quality of residential liberal arts education in fact depends upon limiting productivity. Our choice is clear: rising costs or declining quality. “As long as colleges and universities retain their basic nature as artisan-type institutions,” argue Archibald and Feldman, “in which large numbers of highly trained professionals engage in deep personal interaction with small numbers of students in a face-to-face setting, then the pressures of cost disease will continue.” (117) Recognizing the sustainability challenge presented by this model, the authors support calls for Congressional action to eliminate merit aid—suggesting that the results would be lower tuition costs and more funds for need-based aid. But colleges cannot do this unilaterally. The authors conclude that panicky references to “the college-cost crisis” are alarmist, and inaccurate. Costs have risen to sustain the model. It’s primarily a middle class squeeze and indicative of the growing divide between highest and lowest earners—a structural, income-distribution problem, not a simple matter of cost.

We in this room will find it of particular interest that the authors advocate for greater control over their own finances by public institutions, arguing that state government should get out of the educational financing business and allow state institutions to keep tuition revenue, manage their own budgets and tuition rate decisions, with state grants going directly to support student need. “Changes in the distribution of income and the fact that college costs are rising are not two completely separate trends,” the authors conclude. “One of the major underlying forces that has depressed income growth among the less educated, and these are the people who are experiencing affordability problems, is also a force pushing up costs and eventually prices at colleges and universities. Again, this is not a sudden or immediate crisis. It is a deep-seated and slow-moving process.” (256)

The situation as described by Archibald and Feldman has St. Mary’s College situated better than many – support from the state of Maryland and an ethos of fiscal responsibility has kept our price lower than our peers without sacrificing the quality of the educational program. Still, with a long view forward in mind, there are actions we are taking now to help insure our viability and to make us more attractive to those with the means to support our mission.

The first is to review the College’s budget and set financial priorities. We are, fundamentally, an educational institution of a very particular kind: labor intensive, student-centered, offering highly individualized, deeply personalized instruction to the most academically, intellectually, and creatively ambitious students of the rising generation. As such, our first response is to establish procedures for mission-driven financial decisions—every dollar we commit to an expense has a qualifier: How does this dollar advance the educational mission of the College? Included in our consideration of the College’s finances is our work to create ambitious, targeted fundraising goals, including review of existing MOUs for their appropriateness to the College’s mission.

The second prong of our response is to review the College’s external relations. This includes exploring our funding structure with state officials as a part of my more general acclimation to state government relations, and the hiring of a career development professional as Vice President for Advancement. To compete with our peers, most of which are private and many of which have amassed large endowments, St. Mary’s College must attract private support for our students and our programs. We are a public honors college, but we exist in partnership between the public trust and private support. If our alumni will not assist us in maintaining standards appropriate to an honors college, then we will have failed in our fundamental mission. In other words, if those whom we’ve educated do not conclude that we merit their support, the argument cannot in good conscience be made to the state or to anyone else. We’re working with Maureen Silva to establish alumni and donor cultivation protocols and to set fundraising targets so that private funds can be relied upon for College operations. Related to external relations as well is the establishment of best practices for the St. Mary’s College Foundation and the establishment of productive working relationships with our local and county community.

The third prong turns us back inward, to review Board of Trustee governance structures. Markers include the appointment of an Assistant Vice President for Trustee Relations; collaboration with our board chair to create transparent board procedures, particularly concerning Executive Committee-Board of Trustee interaction and procedures for presidential review; work with the Governance Committee to recruit new board members to fill board vacancies. We’re also considering a visit by representatives from the Association of Governing Boards in February, to assist us with practices to enhance board and administration effectiveness.

The best residential liberal arts colleges are characterized by strong, self-governing communities. The model we present to our students in terms of how we operate is the model they’ll take with them into their lives as citizens, employers, and employees, and it is my purpose to provide them a model of institutional operation worthy of emulation and support. The fourth prong of our efforts this fall is thus to establish a transparent administrative governance structure at the College. The structure has three circles: The smallest is the President’s Council, with eight members: the President, the Vice President for Academic Affairs & Dean of Faculty, the Vice President of Business and Finance, the Vice President for Advancement, the Dean of Students, the Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid; the Faculty Senate President, and the Assistant Vice President for Trustee Relations This group meets weekly. The second circle is the President’s Cabinet, with twenty-five members drawn from directors and others in supervisory capacities, and faculty and student representation. This group meets monthly. The third and largest circle is the President’s Forum, an open meeting to discuss campus issues and provide access by all members of the community to decision makers. These monthly meetings are attended by Council and Cabinet members, with the president presiding. In addition to the president’s administrative structure, we’ve set as a goal this year the creation of a Staff Senate, to provide a formal mechanism for non-faculty employees to have a voice in College policy-making and planning.

The fifth and final prong in our work this fall has been to establish a campus presence for the president. The College has not had a president in residence in the memory of any student on campus; the recent history of faculty-president relations is one of damage and distrust; staff members have experienced a dramatic decline in morale. Specific initiatives include regular attendance at campus events; use of the president’s house for morale-building events; creation of the President’s Forum; the president’s weekly open hour and radio programs; the “15-minute” meetings with individual College employees, the campus arboretum and campus clean-up program. The Forum has opened discussions around specific presidential initiatives, such as the campus pub (and more generally, open discussion of student alcohol culture) and the creation of an academic honor code.

Board members may ask, what possible effect on the College’s long-term financial prospects can these efforts have? That’s a fair question and one I invite by the very structure of these remarks. We are a liberal arts college in the public trust. Supported by the state of Maryland, we are America’s public liberal arts college. We cannot function with state assistance alone. We require investment by those whom we’ve educated and by those who find in our mission and accomplishments an endeavor worthy of their intellectual and financial support. In my vision for St Mary’s College, we merit such support by the strength of our operations: the quality of the educational program, the transparency of the administrative structure, and the soundness of our fiscal management. We engage in continuous reexamination of our practices because we are a liberal arts college, because the models to which we aspire are not simply the highest ideals imaginable now, but those set by the eternities of, yes, the best of human thought and imagination. It will never be good enough to be good enough, not as long as we seek to instill in our students the best that men and women on this earth have thought and written and created, as their models for emulation. We are not a pre-professional college; we are not vocational; we are not in the business of training for work. Our calling is much higher. The stakes against which we measure our purpose are far less apparent to the immediacy of living, as we shape youthful eyes to see much further this way and that, forward and into the past, where the future lies waiting for their hands to shape it. What we do will never be easy; it’s too important to be easily accomplished. But with the model we present, and the students we graduate, we will maintain our exquisite riverside position, delivering a liberal arts education in the public trust, as America’s public honors college.

To accomplish this mission we need the help of all of you, our Board of Trustees. We share stewardship of St. Mary’s College, one of the nation’s most remarkable experiments in higher education. I have committed my energies in the last six months to establishing a presidential footprint on campus. If I’ve not been in touch with you personally already, I’ll be calling soon to discuss the College’s future with you, and to get your responses to the direction we’ve set. As we learned yesterday in campus presentations on the budget and on advancement, we have a lot of work ahead of us. The good news is that St. Mary’s College of Maryland is more than worthy of our joint effort. With your help, I’d like to make this College one that others strive to support, attracted to a vision that has captured our imaginations: I think of it as elite egalitarianism, an elite education that is not elitist, one accessible by standards of intellectual, not financial capacity.

Madame Chair, this concludes my remarks to the Board.