St. Mary’s College of Maryland President Joseph R. Urgo has asked the college’s board of trustees not to renew his contract, effectively resigning under pressure from the public liberal arts college after intense questions and criticism of him about this spring’s failure to enroll enough students for next year. The shortage of students could deeply harm the school’s reputation and is expected to cost millions in lost tuition.

Urgo has led the Southern Maryland school for three years, and his contract is set to expire at the end of this month. In recent weeks, St. Mary’s trustees have expressed concern and frustration and have privately discussed Urgo’s future. They announced Urgo’s decision late Tuesday after meeting for five hours behind closed doors at a law firm in downtown Washington. In a written statement, they said Urgo was moving on for “personal and professional reasons.”

“I leave with mixed emotions because I have enjoyed my time so much at St. Mary’s College,” Urgo said in a written statement. “Leading St. Mary’s College for the past three years has been a tremendous privilege and a great pleasure. The College’s legislative charge of high academic standards and financial accessibility, while challenging, is an inspirational mission. In parting, I wish my friends and the good people of St. Mary’s the very best.”

Board members declined to comment specifically about Urgo’s decision, saying they were grateful for his commitment to the school and his advocacy for liberal arts education. They praised him for increasing the college’s endowment by nearly 30 percent — including an announcement Monday that the school had received $1 million for need-based scholarships — but did not address the looming problems associated with missed enrollment numbers.

Reached by phone late Tuesday, Urgo declined to comment further. He has said he feels “tremendous personal responsibility” for the college’s enrollment shortage, and he has announced plans to identify and address the causes. Just a week ago, Urgo said he expected the trustees to renew his contract for at least another year.

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

When Tuesday’s meeting began, half of the board’s roughly two dozen members were present and five more — including Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) — joined via conference call. Urgo did not attend.

Board members would not comment on whether they have a plan for an interim president, and they would not discuss their search for a successor, which will be the third since 2009. The previous president, Jane Margaret “Maggie” O’Brien, held the position for 13 years. The trustees’ first search for her replacement failed, leaving St. Mary’s without a leader for longer than expected. The second search, conducted with much more secrecy, resulted in the 2010 hire of Urgo, then the top academic officer at Hamilton College in New York.

Trustees said then they believed that he had the right balance of administrative and faculty experience to make transformative changes at the small school, which has about 2,000 students.

St. Mary’s is one of the most expensive public institutions in the nation, although officials say they consider it a bargain when compared with many private liberal arts schools. In recent years, the college has struggled to attract and enroll enough students.

Urgo quickly made changes. He hired a team of administrators, many of whom previously worked at private institutions. He ramped up fundraising, lobbied state lawmakers for more funds, pushed for more diversity in the student body, and overhauled the admissions and financial aid departments.

Urgo faced criticism last summer when two longtime admissions employees, including the popular director of admissions, lost their jobs. Some students, faculty, staff and alumni saw the ousters as an assault on the quirky culture of their tightknit community. Nearly 1,000 signed an online petition questioning the direction St. Mary’s was headed.

For the latest admissions cycle, the number of applications increased, but less than a quarter of those accepted sent in a deposit. Urgo has said that St. Mary’s is short at least 100 students for a usual class size of 450. At a trustees meeting May 10, Urgo called the shortage a “crisis” and a “wake-up call.” He attributed the problem in part to the public college’s high cost and isolated location near the Chesapeake Bay. He also cited the possible effect of national enrollment trends.

Urgo asked faculty and staff to cut 5 percent, or $3.5 million, from next year’s budget. He remained optimistic, telling school staff that when enrollment rebounded — which he expected it would — the college could put the funds toward new projects.

On May 23, Urgo sent a lengthy e-mail to all students, faculty and staff members to reiterate his commitment to the college and explain a number of initiatives underway.

“I am buoyed by the expressions of support and offers of assistance from trustees, faculty, staff, alumni, students, parents, and friends around the state and nationally,” Urgo wrote. “And I am, finally, 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.”