St. Mary's troubles are temporary, but its appeal is enduring

The effective resignation Tuesday of St. Mary's College of Maryland President Joseph R. Urgo undoubtedly will come as a disappointment to the many students, faculty and alumni who shared his vision for the school. St. Mary's is unique among the state's public colleges and universities in its deep commitment to liberal arts education that prepares young people to think critically and creatively about the world around them. Mr. Urgo's departure won't change that, nor will it diminish the school's appeal for students who want to learn in the kind of intensive, intellectually stimulating environment the college offers.

Mr. Urgo's announcement that he had asked St. Mary's board of trustees not to renew his contract when it expires at the end of June capped a month-long crisis sparked by reports the college had failed to meet its enrollment goals for next year by more than a third. Administrators had planned for 470 students in the incoming freshmen class, but by the end of last month only about 300 applicants had confirmed they were actually coming — even though applications had jumped by some 14 percent over last year. The shortfall represented some $3.5 million in lost tuition, or 5 percent of the school's budget, and as a result Mr. Urgo was forced to warn faculty and staff of possible cuts to budgets and programs.

Fairly or not, the financial crisis quickly led to a crisis of confidence in Mr. Urgo's leadership, with critics arguing that the administrative and staff changes he instituted since his arrival three years ago had put the school in jeopardy. Among other things, Mr. Urgo made extensive changes to the school's admissions department and replaced its popular dean, adopted a generic application form designed to attract a more diverse applicant pool and changed the school's formula for awarding financial aid.

Perhaps the biggest driver of the enrollment drop was a mismanagement of the transition to the common application. The common application is a useful tool in that it made it easy for a broad range of students to apply to the school and reversed what had been a trend of declining application numbers, but it also meant that many of them were not as strongly interested in St. Mary's as were students who had applied to it individually. That doesn't mean use of the common application is inherently a mistake, just that it requires some other adjustments in the admissions procedure. The notion that it reflects some shift away from interest in a liberal arts education by high school students is nonsense; lower-quality and higher-cost private liberal arts colleges did not see their enrollments drop by a third from one year to the next.

In fairness to Mr. Urgo, he clearly was successful in many of his efforts to advance St. Mary's and its mission, including beefing up the school's endowment by nearly 30 percent, successfully lobbying for more state funds, pushing for more diversity among the student body and serving as a powerful advocate for the benefits of liberal arts education.

St. Mary's board of trustees has not said whether it will name an interim president to succeed Mr. Urgo, nor has it detailed how it plans to search for his replacement. But as evidenced by the outpouring of public support the school's current difficulties has elicited from students, faculty and alumni, whoever follows him will find a tight-knit academic community eager to strengthen the school's strong traditions of small class sizes, personalized instruction and free-wheeling intellectual inquiry.

Though this has been an extremely painful period for the school, it remains one of the few public honors colleges in the country, and it offers top-notch instruction that has made it the envy of many private colleges and universities and one of the jewels of Maryland higher education (though the college operates independently from the University System of Maryland).

Its troubles are the result of short-term problems, not a fault in the essential character of the institution. The school remains committed to liberal arts education transmitted through a unique course of study that challenges and inspires young minds. Despite the fact that St. Mary's is more expensive than Maryland's other public colleges and universities, that will always be something that certain young people value, and it is also what will ensure the school's enduring appeal.

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