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

The Liberal Arts:
A Public Trust
Joseph R. Urgo, President
Board of Trustees, St. Mary’s College, October 2010

Good morning!  Madame Chair, my purpose for the next ten minutes or so is to provide a framework for the committee reports and discussion that will follow today and throughout the coming academic year. And as this is my first meeting with the Board of Trustees of St. Mary’s College of Maryland, I’d like to use the opportunity to provide some historical perspective and to provide my sense of where we’ve come from, where we’ve been, and where I’d like to take the College, with your assistance and support, in the future.

Historically, by tradition and social organization, high school graduates from the wealthiest American families have been guided to liberal arts colleges, to prepare them for the leadership positions understood—even today—as entitlements of class position. At the same time, bright and ambitious members of the working class were guided to vocational college programs, including nursing, business, and other paraprofessional, preparatory programs. By far the largest demographic attend the state university, where the same sorting would occur through placement exams and advising. In recent decades, “honors colleges” and “residential colleges” have been embedded into large university campuses, to approximate the liberal arts college model for their more ambitious students, as retention strategies.

The liberal arts college is reserved, by historical tradition and design, for those who possess and can afford the leisure it demands—the privilege of academic pursuit. Founded privately by churches in the United States to educate ministers and teachers, fathers were likely to send sons whose business or agricultural prospects were less than promising, or whose older siblings had laid claim to the family enterprise; later, as professions developed, the classical and biblical curriculum gave way to what we know today as a liberal arts and sciences curriculum, and still, these private colleges – most of them have distanced themselves from church affiliation – were populated by privileged classes, whose sons (and in time daughters) could afford to be absent from the workplace for four or more years while they undertook a level of intellectual preparation necessary for occupations that would demand disciplined thought. In time these colleges became gateways to the nation’s more elite law, medical, and post-graduate business programs.

An expansion of higher education opportunities began after the second world war, with the GI Bill, and continued throughout the Cold War, when access to a college education contributed to America’s post-Sputnik national defense strategy – many students of my era went to college partially paid by a “national defense student loan” program, quietly changed, in the Vietnam era, to the “national direct student loan” program. Nonetheless, as college enrollments rose dramatically in the 1960s and 1970s, the sorting continued, and our elite, private residential liberal arts colleges continued to be populated largely by the privileged or professional classes. Liberal arts colleges did recruit selectively from among the most ambitious working class students, and these enrollments were considered risks (or in admissions parlance, a “stretch”). At the same time, as the result of an ethics of inclusion brought about in the wake of the civil rights and feminist movements, pressures were exerted on colleges, by social justice minded elites, to provide greater access to a liberal arts education by women and minorities.

St. Mary’s College of Maryland evolved at first in predictable response to these pressures. In the 1960s it grew from a junior college to a four-year public institution—the last junior college class graduated in 1968, there were no graduations in 1969 and 1970, and in 1971 (forty years ago this May) the first graduates of the new St. Mary’s College of Maryland received their B.A. and B.S. degrees. In 1974 a not altogether confident Middle States Association granted the College its first accreditation as a four-year institution. The next twenty years were critical to the College, as it expanded its local footprint in St. Mary’s County, added new facilities, and worked out a tenuous, but potentially expansive relationship with its neighbor, Historic St. Mary’s City. President Renwick Jackson’s vision of a “public Swarthmore” guided curricular and fiscal planning, which culminated, under President Ted Lewis, in 1992, when the Maryland General Assembly designated St Mary’s as “a public honors college” and instituted the annual “block grant” funding arrangement, roughly duplicating, in operating budget terms, what a wealthy private college earns from a sizable, privately funded endowment.

The evolution of St Mary’s College may be understood as both product of and contributor to the historic expansion of American higher education during the second half of the twentieth century. However, it occupies a unique position in that expansion. Among elite, residential liberal arts colleges, expansion usually meant coeducation and recruitment of students of color. There was no overt push to recruit students based on socioeconomic class, except for the expansion of scholarship funds through government programs. In these same years, the cost of attending a private, liberal arts college grew dramatically, in part to fund access programs. The result of these pricing scenarios has been to create a class structure within the student body—on the one hand, the full-pay students, and on the other, those who receive financial aid in large part funded by the full-pay students. Some observers have called this a selective transfer of wealth, real and potential.

St. Mary’s College of Maryland, however, evolved overtly to provide access to a residential, liberal arts education by that segment of society traditionally excluded from such institutions, or funded by selective wealth transfer within private institutions. The designation “public honors college” signals an affinity with state efforts around the country to approximate the educational experience provided by elite institutions within the confines of a large university. But the affinity is in public mission only; St. Mary’s does not approximate an elite liberal arts institution’s educational program, it creates and maintains such a program in public trust. In place of amassed private wealth in the form of a multimillion or billion dollar endowment, the College’s operational budget is underwritten by an annual block grant from the state of Maryland. The block grant contributes directly to the pricing structure for tuition, which has remained a fraction of what is collected by St. Mary’s private college peers.

Its national distinction in higher education is that St. Mary’s College of Maryland has maintained a commitment to a residential liberal arts education as a public trust. While private colleges work hard to deploy tuition discount programs to place their cost within reach of middle and lower income families, the pricing structure alone indicates that the education they offer is priced for the wealthy classes. This is in keeping with the historic association of  “elite,” or intellectually rigorous education, with economic and social elites, not with middle or working classes. I have no qualms with acknowledging that what we offer at St. Mary’s College is an elite education–it is designed for the intellectual and creative elite emerging from the coming generation of American students in Maryland and beyond. The education we offer is not, however, reserved in any sense for the socioeconomic elite. We are careful, at St Mary’s College, to differentiate the pursuit of knowledge and the pursuit or maintenance of wealth. The pursuits may well cross-pollinate, but their essential DNA remains in distinct strands.

In this, my first Board meeting introduction, I offer four guiding principles for our discussions today and in the year ahead:

1.    Renew the mission: through the vagaries of personnel changes, economic downturn, and protracted responses to crises, St. Mary’s College may have (to employ a nautical metaphor) drifted. Let’s work this weekend to renew our commitment to the core mission of the College: to make a residential liberal arts education accessible to the public, as a public honors college, in the public trust. Many of us had at the enterprise, hands-on, when we attended a strategic planning committee meeting yesterday;

2.    Reaffirm the foundations: we are here to educate the best and the brightest minds of tomorrow’s generational promise, and at every decision point we should ask, what is best for our students. Let’s reaffirm our commitment to an educational program marked by currency (our faculty remain current in their areas of expertise) and relevancy (our students have access to multiple opportunities for research and practical application).

3.    Ensure the public trust: we are stewards of a grand experiment: an elite, liberal arts education without the trappings of socioeconomic elitism, class privilege, or entitlement. The community we maintain on the banks of this river models core principles of access, inclusiveness, meritocracy, and sustainability.

4.    Sustain the Monument school: as a public honors college, we are charged with maintaining exemplary and transparent standards of education, including business, human relations, and employment. As I have said to the senior staff, every decision we make is subject to “the front page test.” If it won’t play well above the fold, we’re likely about to violate our public trust. An educational enterprise was founded on this site in 1840 as a monument to freedom of conscience; help us be as well a monument to the highest standards of public endeavor and educational practices.

I offer my profound appreciation to Board members who this weekend and throughout the year devote time and energy to helping us maintain the trust placed in us by the State of Maryland. We ask your assistance in assuring that we are good stewards, and help us advance this experiment in elite, democratic higher education. As College trustees, you are volunteer stewards acting in good faith on a project that has captured our individual and collective imaginations: St. Mary’s College of Maryland, America’s public honors college. We are far from possessing one mind, and we expect lively discussion and debate as we leave this lofty plain of presidential rhetoric and enter the business at hand. At the same time, we do share a common and overriding purpose, and that is to find the surest path to the best interests of the College. Once we decide on a course, we’re all in it together, as this is the body ultimately responsible for its perpetuation. As I began my remarks, I close with my welcome and my pleasure in seeing all of you gathered here today.  Madame Chair, these are my opening remarks.   

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