New era and president for St. Mary's College of Maryland

By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 31, 2010

At St. Mary's College of Maryland, a library card entitles the bearer to check out a boat. An unofficial Frisbee golf course snakes around campus. Someone walking past the student center on a recent day might have glimpsed this slogan, scrawled on a brick wall above a row of unlocked bicycles: "Every man dies. Not every man really lives."

St. Mary's is a public liberal arts college, one of a handful of tax-funded institutions across the nation with courses and teaching methods that mirror such colleges as Swarthmore and Amherst.

At a time when many people are balking at the $40,000 annual cost of attending top private liberal arts schools, this "poor man's Swarthmore" in Southern Maryland is doing a brisk business. Last fall it had one of the busiest admission seasons on record, with 2,400 students vying for fewer than 500 freshman seats at a school with a $13,630 price tag for resident students.

Joseph Urgo, who starts July 1 as the school's first new president since 1996, envisions the college as an untapped national model.

"It's intriguing, and it works, and it's successful," said Urgo, an administrator at Hamilton College in Clinton, N.Y. "Often, you can be doing something somewhere and not realize it's revolutionary."

Urgo arrives at the end of an era that rates as tumultuous by the serene standards of St. Mary's. The previous president, Jane Margaret O'Brien, resigned last year under pressure from faculty, who said her management style had become autocratic and opaque after 13 years.

In the past 30 years, St. Mary's College has evolved from being considered a party school to an officially designated "honors college," with the highest graduation rate of any public college in Maryland.

And it is unquestionably public. Among the 100 top liberal arts schools in U.S. News & World Report's rankings, St. Mary's is the cheapest by far, apart from three military academies. In a region with an inordinate number and variety of highly regarded public colleges, the institution pops up regularly on lists of collegiate "best buys," alongside the universities of Virginia and Maryland, the College of William and Mary and the University of Mary Washington.

The typical St. Mary's student discovers the college through word of mouth, drives the 70 miles from the District to the banks of the St. Mary's River for a visit and never wants to leave.

"It's nice waking up and seeing the water," said Mike Selckmann, a newly minted 2010 graduate from Frederick County who, like half of his classmates, finished high school in the top 10 percent of his class.

"A lot of people here applied to a lot of schools, and this is the place they wanted to go," he said.

More recognized

The Southern Maryland campus remains relatively unheralded, even within its own county, although that is changing. A recent survey found that half of Marylanders recognize the St. Mary's name, compared with about 40 percent five years ago, according to college spokesman Marc Apter. Even now, the school Web site includes this frequently asked question: "Are you a private, Catholic, female school?"

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