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Lee Capristo
Director of Publications
Email: lwcapristo@smcm.edu
Anne Arundel 100

Of Monuments, Land, Water, and Sky

Written by Joseph R. Urgo, Incoming St. Mary's College President

Incoming St. Mary's president Joe Urgo and his wife Lesley chat with students in the dining hall. Urgo will begin his new duties July 1.
Photo by Lee Capristo

What Differentiates Us from other Colleges?

A college communicates its mission in a number of ways, most deliberately through a formal mission statement, but also in its curriculum, its governance structure, in its various statements of purpose and goals, and through its relationship to the surrounding community. It signals the qualities of its educational mission more subtly by its physical plant-its topography, its buildings and grounds, the points of contact between the college and its natural surroundings.

Many colleges seek distinction on hilltops, amidst arboretums, or in the hubbub of an urban metropolis. St. Mary's College was founded as a monument to the ideals which brought the first settlers to Historic St. Mary's City, and was so planted (to invoke a 17th-century understanding) on the very ground where those first settlers planted their free and inclusive colony. As the College and I have come to know each other, I've been asked, most recently by a member of the alumni body, to explain how the College's mission, and how the liberal arts at St. Mary's College of Maryland, are understood to be distinctive-what differentiates us? My answer looks to the planting of the College.

There are three ways in which the circumstances of its planting make this College distinctive, and these are drawn from the salience of three natural phenomena.

First, there is the very land we inhabit, the site of Historic St. Mary's City, established and inspired by the ideals of freedom and inclusiveness. Men and women uprooted, crossed an ocean in primitive sailing vessels, and established a community on this site dedicated to what were at the time radically new ideas of religious and cultural inclusion. The courage and adventurousness of these original settlers ought to inspire us to meet the same challenge among our current diverse populations, and make St. Mary's a model for inclusive practices and pedagogies.

Second, there is the water that surrounds the campus, an ongoing, ever-present, undeniable reminder that we have an obligation to create sustainable models of existence-in terms of the environment, to be sure, but also financially, so that this educational institution remains accessible to all who want to come to its shores. The water is also a reminder-again, constant and surrounding-of the multiplicity of links to the external world beyond St. Mary's College. We may be remote in Southern Maryland, but only by the limits of our imagination. In the present era, there is no remoteness, and the water around us reminds us that the world we inhabit is ever- and always connected in one continuous, interlocking environment.

Third, there is the expanse of sky one sees in all directions blanketing the campus, reminding us of what, as an educational institution, St. Mary's cultivates: aspiration, creativity, the endless reach of human beings for something better, something that has not been assembled in just this way, drawn in that manner, sung by this combination of voices. At other colleges, one may have to look up, straining perhaps, to see the sky and be connected to its aspirational pull. At St. Mary's there is no straining for this reminder; it beckons at a glance. By its ubiquity we know that as rooted as we are in this land's history, and as dedicated as we are to creating sustainable models of existence, we are equally responsible for creating the future-incubating the ideas and hosting the explorations that will give rise to what the coming generation of students will come to know as their world, the world they began to make at St. Mary's College.

Lesley and I are in the process now of planting ourselves into this setting, to lead the College and to make our lives in the community of Southern Maryland. We bring with us great admiration for St. Mary's College, a keen interest in Historic St. Mary's City and the surrounding neighborhoods, and a commitment to the partnerships that make each of these entities so vibrant and compelling.

Bio of New St. Mary's President

Dr. Joseph R. Urgo becomes the president of St. Mary's College of Maryland July 1. He comes to St. Mary's from Hamilton College in upstate New York, where he has been vice president for academic affairs and dean of the faculty.

Urgo and his wife, Lesley, have visited St. Mary's several times, most recently for Commencement. During his visits, he made himself assessable to every department and corner of the College, and to the general community, answering questions, wandering through the Great Room at lunchtime to meet students, and listening to everyone's input.

"There was a palpable sense of excitement and celebration as we unanimously elected Dr. Urgo," said Molly Mahoney, chair of the search committee and member of the Board of Trustees, when the choice was made. "As we got to know Dr. Urgo, we found he understood St. Mary's College, our sense of place, and shared our deep respect for the mission of a public liberal arts institution. We believe he will actively cultivate the intellectual life and vitality of the college.

Urgo is a professor of English, and has taught courses in American literature while serving as dean. He has written six books focusing on the works of 20th-century novelists William Faulkner and Willa Cather. He created the position of associate dean for diversity initiatives, improving the recruitment and retention of faculty of color during his time at Hamilton.

A native of Hartford, Connecticut, Urgo received his bachelor's degree in 1978 from Haverford College with a major in political science. He holds a
master's degree from Wesleyan University and a master's and Ph.D. in American civilization from Brown University.

Prior to Hamilton, Urgo served as professor and chair of the English department at the University of Mississippi from 2000 to 2006. He was a member of the Bryant College faculty for 11 years. Urgo is married to Lesley Dretar Urgo, a native of Akron, Ohio. They have a grown son, George, and two dogs, Dino, the Dalmatian, and Doodle, the Jack Russell.