St. Mary's College in turmoil

St. Mary's College of Maryland, which for years has enjoyed a reputation as a gem among the state's public institutions, finds itself on the defensive as a projected admissions shortfall has come to light, the president has resigned and an outspoken education critic has taken aim at the school.

It's an uncomfortable position that has led alumni, staff and board members to wage a public relations campaign, writing letters to the editor and issuing statements, to protect the school's standing.

On Tuesday, the college's Board of Trustees announced that President Joseph R. Urgo had asked that his contract not be renewed for "personal and professional reasons."

The move came weeks after board members learned that admissions for the incoming freshman class are projected to be about 150 below the goal of 470 students. And it came days after Anne Neal, president of the conservative American Council of Trustees and Alumni, published an opinion piece saying that St. Mary's offers an "anything goes" curriculum.

"We're always concerned about the reputation of the school," said Beth Rushing, vice president of academic affairs at the small liberal arts college in Southern Maryland, which prides itself on offering an education on par with prestigious private institutions at a public school price.

Urgo could not be reached for comment. The incoming chairman of the board, lawyer Gail Harmon, declined to say whether the board would have renewed Urgo's contract, which expires this month.

Harmon and Rushing said they were perplexed and troubled by the projected admissions shortfall and that a task force is investigating. The trustees are looking for an interim president.

In Annapolis, where legislators can be quick to criticize ailing institutions that subsist on public funds, an education leader said he is confident that St. Mary's will sort it out.

"The board is clearly on top of things," said Del. John L. Bohanan Jr., a St. Mary's County Democrat who chairs the House subcommittee that oversees the higher education budget. "It's still a real strong school. It's still a gem for the state of Maryland. It'll clearly bounce back."

St. Mary's troubles come at a challenging time for liberal arts schools, Bohanan and others said. As tuition costs rise across the country, students are asking more often how their diploma will help them get a job.

"We've become increasingly focused on: 'What job are you preparing to get? What career?'" said Victor E. Ferrall Jr., a former president of Beloit College in Wisconsin. "Liberal arts doesn't have a ready answer for that because you're not preparing for a particular job. You're preparing in a much more general sense for life."

Two thirds of St. Mary's students go on to pursue advanced degrees.

Applications have fallen in the past few years at St. Mary's, which has responded by joining a national application system that makes it easier to apply and by targeting superior students at community colleges to boost its transfer numbers. The school — the most expensive public institution in the state with a price tag of $14,864 for tuition and fees — will implement a two-year tuition freeze this fall.

"We're extremely proud of that and hope to continue to work on ... making St. Mary's education affordable and accessible to other students," Rushing said.

Urgo reportedly has said that the school's relatively high cost and its isolated location in St. Mary's City contributed to the decline in admissions. But some who were casualties of staff cuts under his administration disagree.

"That's been the truth for the last 20 years," said Marc Apter, a St. Mary's spokesman who was let go when Urgo took over in 2010. "People who like the college like it because it's on a beautiful setting on the Chesapeake Bay; they make their own fun, et cetera, et cetera. And the tuition is still lower than at any private school."

Rich Edgar, a former director of admissions who was let go last year after 25 years at St. Mary's, said the staff cuts were partly to blame.

"It was hurtful to the institution in many ways because they didn't understand human capital is so important," Edgar said. "The new administration failed. ... If they re-right the ship and they're able to move forward, I think they'll be able to become a stronger institution."

Danette G. Howard, the state's higher education secretary, said St. Mary's plays "a special role within Maryland as the public honors college in the state." She pledged to work with the board during this "time of transition."

She was baffled by the admissions drop.

"You typically don't see enrollment shifts of that magnitude from one year to the next," Howard said. "I think it would be presumptuous to try to draw any conclusions about the school's future based upon one year of a significant decrease in enrollment. We need to see what happens next year and maybe the year after to see if this is really just an anomaly, to see if they rebound next year."

John Ruth has two grandchildren at St. Mary's and one starting in the fall. He and his wife put their three children through the school years ago. They take offense at the recent criticism.

"I have no reason to believe that St. Mary's College of Maryland has changed in a way that is detrimental to the educational process," Ruth said. "We're delighted with the education that [our children] got and the opportunities that developed from it. ... I believe in a liberal arts education. I believe in educating people so they have inquiring minds."

Rushing, who joined St. Mary's in 2011, said the school's mission has not and will not change. She called the admissions issues a "temporary setback."

"I am concerned, we're all concerned. We'd like to have more students, and we've got room for more students than we have currently signed up for this coming year," she said, adding that as a social scientist, she wants to see data before deciding how to react.

"We are a strong college, and we provide a strong honors education at a public college price," she said. "We'll stay true to who we are."

Baltimore Sun reporter Michael Dresser contributed to this article.

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