For 12 1/2 years, J. Renwick Jackson Jr. built his dream college, creating on the sun-swept banks of southern Maryland's St. Mary's River "a poor man's Swarthmore" he hoped would "liberate people from narrowness, set people free."
Jackson sold his dream in Annapolis, drawing legislators into the disarming spell of his vision: to transform St. Mary's College from a two-year women's seminary into a public liberal arts college that would rank with the nation's best private institutions. He won millions of dollars for buildings and established programs with schools in England, China and France.
With his extraordinary flair for persuasion, the former Presbyterian minister attracted an eminent faculty from the enclaves of traditional higher education to become disciples in his mission.
But over the years, Jackson's unrelenting drive for the vision turned his campus against him. There were attacks on his house and family. Residents of rural St. Mary's County distrusted the college and its president. The faculty he had recruited and the students who had partied with the president cast separate votes of no confidence in Jackson.
Then word spread last winter that the president, who lived at the time with his wife and four children on campus, had fallen in love with Alison Baker, the school's vice president for academic affairs.
Meeting in Annapolis on the icy afternoon of Feb. 6, the college's Board of Trustees announced the president's sudden resignation, and his temporary replacement, Richard D. Weigle, the former president of St. John's College, while the school searches for a new president.
Jackson's wife, from whom he is now legally separated, and three of his children have moved to New Jersey. In a tiny cottage on the banks of the Patuxent River 30 miles northwest of the college, Jackson spends the summer days with his oldest son, 14-year-old James (Wick) Renwick Jackson III, who remembered the night his father resigned. Some students had started a bonfire and had made effigies of the president, Alison Baker, and a supporter, Dean of Students George E. Adams.
"They burned George, and they burned Alison," Wick said, turning to his father, "and they burned you. They were so happy when they got you out."
James Renwick Jackson Jr., a former minister and a peace marcher in the 1960s, envisioned the study of liberal arts as a means of achieving "social justice."
He wanted to establish a liberal arts college on a par with Oberlin and Swarthmore, one that offered intense, personal exposure to challenging ideas, one that transformed personal values.
But unlike those schools, he wanted to make his a public institution, accessible to those who otherwise could never afford a high-quality liberal arts education.
"I looked all over the country for a place that was politically ripe," Jackson said. "St. Mary's was just starting out as a four-year instituiton." He approached the trustees, and was hired in 1969.
Jackson began to build his dream, searching passionately for teachers and administrators who would be part of the mission.
"He could mesmerize people," said Christine C. Cihlar, assistant to the president. "When he got down one-to-one, the intensity of his feelings about what he wanted to make at St. Mary's, some people, people who liked to dream--he just swept them up."
The first pilgrims to Jackson's experiment found at St. Mary's City an idyllic realm of natural wonder almost unchanged since it was the first settlement in Maryland in 1634.
"They were wonderful days of people doing their own things brilliantly," Jackson recalled. "Chaos, it seems to me, is the proper temper for creative endeavor."
The social science division had no exams and no grades. Jackson had to dissuade a group of students from designing a class around a pregnant student who wanted to give birth in her dormitory. Then in 1972, an advertisement appeared in Rolling Stone offering a teaching job at St. Mary's. "No degree necessary," it read, "just experience with The Movement."
"That's when the governor called me in," Jackson said.
To fulfill his mission, Jackson decided he must take a more authoritative role, changing from "an enabler, a recruiter, a nurturer to an executive. I really put myself under the burden of executive function. . . . That was tragic for me."
He abolished faculty tenure in 1972, making St. Mary's the nation's only college to do so successfully. He substituted a contract system that allowed him to replace those he thought were impeding progress. Students who saw some favorite instructors lose their positions, and faculty members who saw their colleagues shuffled or fired, regarded Jackson's actions as a "purge."
"It gave some teeth to the commitment to excellence. If they weren't excellent, they weren't going to hang around," Jackson said.
Jackson created new programs, new areas of study, all based on imaginative approaches and an ability to "broker limited resources." But the pace disturbed those who had to wrestle with details.
"He would change directions faster than people could start in the original direction," Cihlar said. "He didn't seem to want to acknowledge the difference between making something happen and the time it takes to make something happen."
"Programs would get started, and then Jackson would lose interest," said John D. Underwood, human development division chairman. "For some people it was devastating."
David Reisman, a Harvard sociologist who has studied college presidents for 30 years, said "I kept telling Renwick Jackson, 'You're overambitious and overidealistic, but you can't do everything at once.' "
"If the criticism is that I was not an implementer of dreams, the record proves that's untrue," Jackson said. "If the criticism was that I had more dreams than I can implement, I plead guilty."
Jackson changed deans of students five times. He changed vice presidents for academic affairs five times. The fifth was Alison Baker.
"People did not perceive what Ren felt: that if St. Mary's is just an ordinary liberal arts college, its existence is in peril," Baker said. "It got translated into a faculty power struggle, and he was resisted as a force."
In 1974 the faculty, most of whom Jackson recruited, voted no confidence in the president. The trustees held to the promise of Jackson's ideal and renewed the president's contract. "He came out of it stronger," said John E. Wier, head of the faculty senate, "and the faculty came out weakened."
Even in the worst times, Jackson's zest for life could be enthralling. Flinging a Frisbee, drifting down the river in an inner tube, drinking whisky with his students, Jackson could suspend the tension in an air of celebration. But even that seemed to underscore his power, and those who opposed his actions felt a growing sense of desperation.
"Every night the house was attacked," Jackson said. "Social science laboratories were conducted on my front lawn. I was in sympathy with them as they were protesting against me as an authority figure. . . . I take people beating on me as normal, an exhilirating feeling that we're succeeding. . . . My goal was to prevent stabilization until we got to excellence. People hated that. I understood that. I didn't take it personally. Some people wanted me to."
While Ren Jackson lived protected in the campus he controlled, his son Wick grew up facing the growing rage against the college and his father. His tricycle was smashed one night. He remembers standing in the school gymnasium in 1977, watching the students cast a vote of no confidence in the president, 630 to 25. "Sorry, kid," one told him, "your dad sucks."
There were the fights at school, and some children from the rural tobacco-growing and fishing community his father aimed to liberate would tell Wick how their parents saw it: His father wasted tax dollars on a haven for potheads and pinkos.
In the last few years, the conflict between Jackson and the campus community was obscured by signs that the dream finally was taking shape. Enrollment has grown to 1,300. The faculty now has 75 members. In 1980, SAT scores for new students were the highest of any college in the state. And last year, for the first time, a wave of St. Mary's graduates hit graduate and professional schools such as Dartmouth, Princeton and Notre Dame. A National Merit Scholarship finalist came to the school. St. Mary's was listed in the The New York Times Selective Guide to Colleges.
"We did it," Jackson said.
While problems in the curriculum lingered, Jackson's attention drifted. He began to talk with his associates and school trustees about leaving.
Last December, police in Waldorf arrested Jackson, who was later acquitted of drunk driving. Around that time, he fell in love.
"Facing a long relationship with Alison, there wasn't any way we could continue at St. Mary's," Jackson said. "I had told some of the board that I was getting ready to go."
While members considered Jackson's request, the word spread on the small, isolated campus. "You could feel the political tension, the fear and mistrust," said Lynne Stanfield, a sophomore and an editor on the school newspaper. "There was an overwhelming feeling throughout the campus that this time, he had to go."
Forty students, teachers and staff members drove to Annapolis on Saturday, Feb. 6. The trustees emerged, and in a four-minute meeting, they announced Jackson's resignation. The room was silent.
"I remember walking back down the streets of Annapolis," said Cihlar, the president's assistant. "The sky was gray, and it was bitter cold, bitter cold."
Students, faculty and those who had fallen out with Jackson celebrated that night in a local bar. The college distributed a statement Jackson had written, but there was a part officials didn't print:
"Elijah left the world in a chariot of fire," Jackson wrote. "And there is a Viking tradition of going out to sea in a fiery boat. My years at St. Mary's have had fire and intensity. . . . My service to St. Mary's has been an act of love. It is meet and right that my departure moves on the powerful tides of the mysteries and discoveries of profound love."
One month after Jackson left, the college asked Alison Baker to resign.
"This is my Walden," Renwick Jackson says, standing before the tiny clapboard cottage at the river's edge. "And this is my Walden Pond," he says, pointing toward the Patuxent River. At 53, he spends his days windsurfing. In the mornings and evenings he writes the saga of his St. Mary's years, filing the chapters in cardboard boxes.
"In departing, I can take very hostile feelings, very negative feelings, right out of the system as I go," he said. "Some people who shared the vision but didn't agree with the way I did things may become some of the strongest leaders of the mission . . . ."
Jackson talked of his work designing a course of study for the future as a consultant for the American Association of State Colleges and Universities. "The curriculum keeps changing. What sets people free keeps changing."