On Friday, March 5, The Point News was fortunate enough to be able to talk to the College’s next president, Joseph Urgo, currently vice president of academics and dean of faculty at Hamilton College. He talked about his impression of the College, his views on the College presidency, and more.
The Point News: How did the St. Mary’s presidential search first come to your attention?
Joseph Urgo: I got an inquiry from the search firm asking if I would be interested in learning more about St. Mary’s College.
TPN: When did you decide to put your name in for the search? Why?
JU: Sometime last year. What attracted me mostly is [St. Mary’s] distinctive model as a public liberal arts college. I’m fully committed to making the liberal arts accessible to all members of the population who wish to experience this level of academic challenge. I don’t think the liberal arts should be reserved for the privileged few, but rather an option available to all motivated students. The liberal arts are of great public value to the nation as a whole, and should attract the brightest intellects in the rising generation.
TPN: As you know, the presidential search process was closed to the students the second time around, which led to many of us wondering what went on behind closed doors. Could you describe the selection process a bit from your end?
JU: From a candidate’s end, you might prefer it if your home institution didn’t know you were involved, or thinking about accepting a new set of challenges. Presidential searches are often kept confidential.
I had long conversations with the search committee, and there were faculty, students, staff members, and trustees on the search committee. I did visit campus, but I did so quietly, on my own. I remember meeting some students swimming off a dock, and they told me that this was a great place to study…As for the search, there are some endeavors where we need to put our trust in shared governance, in a representative system, as a substantive gesture of faith in our colleagues and peers.
TPN: What do you remember about your college president from when you were an undergrad at Haverford, and how does that affect your view of the job?
JU: I knew my president personally—Jack Coleman. I took a class with him (he taught a class in the Political Science department)…He was pretty much a fixture on campus: not only he, but also his family, his dog. That’s always been my model of a residential college presidency.
TPN: You have a family and two dogs. Will they be a part of this campus as well?
JU: Yes, that’s how I understand the president’s role. The St. Mary’s College campus will be my and Lesley’s new home. I consider the president’s role to be a living part of the institution — interacting with all members of the community, on and off campus, students as well as employees. This is important, I think, so that the President is able to speak about the College not only from knowledge, but from day-to-day, residential experience. Willa Cather has a nice line about the kind of work involved in a presidency (she was writing about artists, in The Song of the Lark): “Your work becomes your personal life. You’re not much good until it does.”
TPN: You teach classes along with your work as dean of faculty. What classes do you teach, and could you describe them? I heard you’re teaching a class about Faulkner…
JU: Yes, I’m teaching a seminar on Faulkner this semester. Every spring, I’ve taught a course here [at Hamilton]. And if the St. Mary’s English Department will have me, I’d like to teach a course for them. Maybe not the first year (I’ll be learning a lot!), but after we’re settled.
TPN: Okay, onto the more fun stuff: some of the students here have noticed that you have a Facebook page, and several students have already written on your Wall. How do you plan to use social media to interact with students at St. Mary’s?
JU: I will use Facebook to keep students and others in the St Mary’s community involved in what I’m doing for the College. Also Twitter; I have a Twitter account. At Hamilton, I would Tweet at sports games to give scoring updates, or to give updates at alumni events– that sort of thing…. I had a radio program, which I’d like to have at St. Mary’s, if the station is looking for help. I find new social media—although I guess radio isn’t that new—to be very useful…You can keep the campus informed of things and stay connected, regardless of location and travel.
TPN: Your Facebook wall also shows you on a Vespa. Will we see that at all on campus?
JU: Absolutely. That’s my chief mode of transportation when the weather permits.
TPN: Now, you said you’ve visited campus. What was your favorite part?
JU: Yes, I did a self-guided tour, and it was over the summer. What I told the search committee at the time is “land, water, sky”—I was struck by the sheer prominence of these sensations: the vastness of the sky, the surround of water, the historical significance of the topography, excavated …. And, of course, the architecture as well, 19th and 20th century (and 21st!). The students must feel fortunate to be in this location. I am certain that it must be conducive to deep and rewarding academic thought—what beauty in which to do one’s work!
TPN: What are you most looking forward to about becoming president of St. Mary’s College?
JU: I’m looking forward to helping the College to define and meet its aspirations. But first, I look forward to meeting everyone and coming to know the community, its present, its past, and its idea of the future.
TPN: Before we wrap up, is there anything that you want to say to the St. Mary’s College community?
JU: Just that this is a great honor I’m thrilled and humbled by the invitation to join the community and campus as its next president. Lesley and I look forward with great pleasure to transplanting our lives to St. Mary’s College and St Mary’s City.
Urgo will be visiting campus from Thursday, March 11 to Monday, March 15. According to the schedule sent out by Vice President for Business and Finance Tom Botzman, Urgo will be informally meeting with students after the Cabaret performance Thursday and at 1:30 p.m. on Friday in Montgomery, Schaefer, and Glendening Halls.