By Jenna Johnson and Susan Kinzie
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, January 8, 2009
Jane Margaret "Maggie" O'Brien, who is credited with developing and promoting St. Mary's College of Maryland, announced yesterday that she will step down as president of the highly regarded school by 2010.
In nearly 13 years as president, O'Brien intensified the school's curriculum and elevated its standing nationwide, landing St. Mary's on several magazine lists of the nation's top public colleges.
When O'Brien, 55, became president in 1996, the college was on the cusp of becoming better known for academics than for partying. Her predecessor, Edward T. Lewis, fought to keep the school independent of the University of Maryland system in the mid-1980s and filled its board of trustees with affluent individuals who helped its endowment balloon.
The college was designated a public honors college by the Maryland legislature in 1992 because of its honors-level curriculum, small class size and independent study opportunities. At St. Mary's, every student is an honors student, unlike at state universities, where a relatively small number take part in honors programs.
Under O'Brien's leadership, the college raised millions of dollars for construction, scholarships, professorships, lecture and learning series, and arts, athletic and community programs, such as free summer concerts. The college's international study abroad programs expanded and flourished.
"She was extremely successful in working with state legislators and four governors . . . to orchestrate the funding and construction of needed facilities on campus, which contributed to the college becoming a liberal arts school of the highest caliber," said former Maryland state senator J. Frank Raley, a trustee emeritus of the college.
In 2002, the college established the Center for the Study of Democracy, which organizes public lectures and offers scholarship opportunities. O'Brien also formed a partnership to help preserve Historic St. Mary's City, Maryland's first capital, while providing learning opportunities for students.
During O'Brien's tenure, the college has grown from 1,600 students to 2,000, and the percentage of full-time students who live on campus has increased from 60 to 85 percent.
"In terms of student life, the college was absolutely turned upside down," said Torre Meringolo, the college's vice president of development. "We went from having very modest facilities to now having a campus to die for."
O'Brien reached out to students in the District, in part to add more racial and economic diversity to the rural campus. In 2001, O'Brien gave three D.C. public school students full-ride scholarships after hearing that they had been promised a free college education by a Bethesda-based foundation that went out of business. She said she often visited inner-city high schools in search of "unusual scholars," who might not meet traditional admissions standards but have great potential.
"Our success rates with those students are one of the things I am most proud of," she said.
Today, students of color make up about 20 percent of the student body. About 70 percent of students receive financial aid, and one-fourth are the first in their families to attend college.
O'Brien's presidency has not been without controversy. In 1998, five gunmen took over a bus carrying 16 St. Mary's students and teachers on a college-sponsored trip in Guatemala. The men robbed the passengers and raped five women during a two-hour ordeal.
Overnight, the quiet campus was deluged with television cameras and reporters. At the time, O'Brien said that the college had carefully reviewed consular reports before the trip and that organizers had done all they could to protect the students. In 2002, the college paid three of the victims a total of $195,000 to settle a lawsuit.
Terry Hartle, an official of the American Council on Education, said O'Brien handled the crisis "with grace and enormous leadership. It was obviously a tragic incident in the college's history, but it didn't define the institution."
Beginning in 2007, neighbors of the college protested the construction of two buildings on the banks of the St. Mary's River and asked why they were not included in the planning process. A few people accused the college of being elitist and operating above the law.
O'Brien said she plans to step down by June 2010 or when a successor is picked, whichever comes first. She will continue to work with the college's Centre for Medieval and Renaissance Studies in Oxford, England, while raising money for St. Mary's and teaching at the college.
"It will be an extension of what I have done already," O'Brien said. "We've been talking about it for a while . . . and I am very excited about it."
In the coming weeks, the board of trustees plans to begin the search for a successor, which O'Brien estimates will take about eight months.