St. Mary’s College of Maryland president questioned on student shortage


Students walk across the St. Mary’s College of Maryland campus between classes in this file photo. (James A. Parcell/For The Washington Post)
May 30, 2013

When Joseph Urgo became president of St. Mary’s College of Maryland three years ago, trustees considered him a devoted scholar who could steer the small, public honors college toward greater financial stability.

His contract read: “You are precisely the type of inspirational and energetic leader the College needs at this time.”

Now, some of the school’s strongest supporters worry that Urgo made too many changes too quickly. Urgo has taken “personal responsibility” for the college’s failure to recruit enough students for this fall’s freshman class, a shortage that could cost $3.5 million in lost tuition and force cuts at the school of about 2,000.

“There is no justifiable reason in the world that admissions should fall off like this,” said James P. Muldoon, a trustee who led the board when Urgo was hired in 2010. “I would say that there is a general concern about some of the decisions he has made. . . . He will have to answer for that.”

Urgo’s contract is set to expire at the end of June. Trustees plan to meet privately next week and discuss the president’s performance. The evaluation was originally scheduled for a May trustees meeting, but it was delayed when dozens of students and faculty unexpectedly showed up.


St. Mary's College President Joseph Urgo. (Linda Davidson/The Washington Post)

Three other trustees on the board — which has about two dozen members — said it is unclear what level of responsibility Urgo should take for the shortage or whether it will affect his contract negotiations. Several trustees spoke on the condition of anonymity because a board leader forbade them to speak to the media.

Urgo said he has no reason to believe that his employment is in danger. Last week, he e-mailed students, faculty and staff with a promise to fully investigate the student shortage and make any necessary changes. Urgo wrote that he was “humbled by those of you who have shown me the passion that you feel for St. Mary’s College, and have made clear the weight of trust you have placed in me as your president.”

The St. Mary’s community has been roiling with anger and concern since early May, when Urgo announced that the school had secured only about two-thirds of the students needed for a full freshman class this fall. Faculty were told to expect budget cuts equal to 5 percent of the budget.

At the trustees meeting on May 10, Urgo said the shortage — estimated at 150 students — was a “crisis” and a “wake-up call for all of us.”

“We cannot survive as an institution if we do not make significant changes,” he said.

Urgo attributed the problem, at least in part, to the public college’s high cost and isolated location in rural Southern Maryland. He also cited the impact of national enrollment trends.

Many faculty think there is much more to the problem, Faculty Senate President Alan Dillingham said.

“Some of this adverse development has to be related to changes in the admissions strategy and tactics,” Dillingham said. “The drop is too large to attribute to trend factors.”

‘A culture shift’

Over three years, Urgo has replaced nearly every top administrator with an outside hire. Several faculty and former employees said the college quickly lost a wealth of institutional knowledge, and the fact that so many of the new leaders were from private universities instead of public ones raised immediate concerns.

“There has been a culture shift,” said one faculty member, who like many of those interviewed spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution from administrators. “They don’t get St. Mary’s. There’s a real isolation of the president and his cabinet, and it’s a major problem.”

The most notable ousters involved admissions. (Washington Post reporter Neil Irwin, a St. Mary’s graduate, has been a trustee since 2007 and has served as chairman of the board’s admissions and financial aid committee.)

First went the dean of admissions, Wesley P. Jordan, who rejoined the faculty. Urgo then hired Patricia Goldsmith of Scripps College in California to head the office. Last summer, two longtime and well-respected employees were called to human resources and told that their positions had been eliminated.

One was an office manager who had worked at the university for 37 years. The other was Richard Edgar, the director of admissions.

“After 25 years, it was a pretty difficult way to be treated,” Edgar said. “They said they wanted to go in a different direction. They never shared what direction they wanted to go. . . . But their direction has been flawed from the beginning because they don’t realize that human resources is your No. 1 product and should be cherished.”

Edgar was well-known in Maryland high schools. He enthusiastically pitched St. Mary’s, befriended counselors who might refer students and got to know prospective undergraduates. His dismissal prompted nearly 1,000 people to sign an online petition.

“This institution seems to be undergoing an identity crisis,” the petition read. “The college has succeeded in being an affordable alternative to private liberal arts institutions. However, it seems that St. Mary’s College of Maryland is more intent on mimicking these institutions rather than being this alternative. ”

Urgo would not comment on the personnel changes. He defended his strategy of ensuring that St. Mary’s provides a challenging, honors-level education while staying financially stable. Some of his top priorities are fundraising, promoting the school nationally, slowing the growth of tuition and changing the demographics of the mostly white student body.

“We walk a line between public, which means accessible and open, and liberal arts, which is elitist, in a way . . . really academically focused,” Urgo said. “Whenever we veer too much over to the liberal arts end of it, looking too much like a private, that makes people nervous because that sends signals that we are going to lose our public mission. And I think that anytime we move too far over to the public [end], we get nervous because we want to maintain those high academic standards.”

Enrollment struggles

Urgo was previously a chief academic officer at Hamilton College, a private institution in Upstate New York. His scholarly work focuses on 20th-century American writers, especially William Faulkner and Willa Cather. Urgo replaced Jane Margaret “Maggie” O’Brien, who was president for 13 years. The trustees’ first search for a replacement failed. Their second attempt, conducted with more secrecy, netted Urgo.

More than 20 years ago, the college evolved from a party school to “public honors college” with its own governing board.

St. Mary’s has struggled to recruit students in recent years, Urgo said. After years of steady growth, the number of applicants and enrolled students remained flat for several years, even as St. Mary’s made its application more generic and easier to complete.

Some students worry that as St. Mary’s moves away from nontraditional admissions practices — such as encouraging video essays — the student body might become bland. Their refrain became: “Keep St. Mary’s weird!”

“The value of St. Mary’s, the reason I went here, the reason I stayed here, the reason I got so much out of it is the community,” said Jean Drzyzgula, 22, a rising senior. “It’s a different kind of intelligence. It’s not measured in SAT scores.”

Last year’s recruitment cycle was one of the worst. St. Mary’s received fewer than 2,000 applications, a 37 percent drop from four years earlier. The school accepted 72 percent of its applicants, and fewer than 30 percent of those accepted enrolled.

Meanwhile, Maryland’s flagship campus in College Park accepted fewer than half of its applicants. Its tuition and fees are also much lower: This school year, Maryland residents paid up to $8,900 at U-Md. and $14,775 at St. Mary’s. (St. Mary’s trustees recently froze tuition for the coming school year and hope to do so again.)

To recruit freshmen for this fall, St. Mary’s simplified its application and received more than 2,250 applications. The school accepted 73 percent of the applicants. Urgo budgeted for a larger-than-usual freshman class.

By April, it became clear that not enough of the people admitted planned to enroll, Urgo said. As of mid-May, only 22 percent of those accepted had submitted deposits. The shortage is now estimated at 100 students, and the school is investigating what happened.

“I feel a tremendous personal responsibility for failing to get word out to the students who would have found academic and life-transforming success here,” Urgo wrote in an all-campus e-mail last week. “I know we failed because publicity about our predicament has attracted new applications from students who either didn’t know about us, or whom we did not see at first glance. Both of these failures are ones I feel profoundly.”

Jenna Johnson writes about Maryland politics, including the General Assembly, the administration of Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) and the 2014 election.
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