Originally I greeted the news of President Urgo’s selection as the college’s new President with a sense of cynicism; especially considering the fuss that surrounded nominee James Bacchus and the Board of Trustee’s choice to pick their next candidate in closed Executive session, I expected another presidency marked by inaccessibility. So when I learned President Urgo wanted to set up weekly meetings with me to talk about the Point News and the general goings-on around campus, I was intrigued about what I believed would be a rare and cherished privilege to actually get to know our new President.
I’m very happy to say that it has turned out to be a far less rarefied privilege than I would’ve ever thought; it seems that Urgo has defied my expectations, and has made every attempt to connect with the college. Even better, I don’t think it’s just some half-baked attempt at photo-ops or something purely symbolic; from creating the President’s Forum and open hours at the Grind to restructuring his administrative cabinet to allow a more direct “chain of command”, Urgo seems genuinely and heavily invested in the dealings of this college and its student body. I must say that it is a welcome and refreshing change to have a President that I actually can see driving around campus on his Vespa or walking down the path, and it’s so novel that I believe many of us Upperclassmen are still a little in shock at having a President so visible and so accessible.
What’s perhaps even more exciting than all this, however, is that this ideology of accessibility and community has caught like wildfire across campus, as one can witness from initiatives like new Director of Public Safety Christopher Santiago’s own open hours and our new trustee spotlight (page 4). Never before have I seen so many sections of the administration interested in the Point News, which is obviously a huge boon for us, but I think is also indicative of this new mindset.
Granted, Urgo still stands as an untested President, and only time will show whether he can continue to be this open and this accessible in the face of the huge responsibilities that will begin to fall on him; I would hope that the job wouldn’t end up jading him like it might have with O’Brien. However, I believe what he has already done has given new life to this campus and this administration, and for that I am deeply grateful.
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.
On Monday, Feb. 22, the Presidential Search committee announced that it had selected Dr. Joseph Urgo as the next College president.The announcement marked the culmination of a search which began last April and restarted last October after all of the previous candidates withdrew. Urgo will join the College on July 1, 2010.
Urgo is currently the vice president for academic affairs and dean of faculty at Hamilton College in Clinton, New York. He is also a professor of English, and has taught courses in American literature while serving as dean of faculty. He previously served as a professor and the chair of the English department at the University of Mississippi from 2000-2006.
“I am drawn to SMCM because of its liberal arts tradition, its reputation for rigorous undergraduate research, and its strong sense of community,” Urgo told the College for its press release. “More importantly, SMCM has one of the finest faculties in the country. I feel privileged to have the opportunity to work with such a talented and committed group of teacher-scholars and creative artists.”
Urgo’s research focuses on 20th-century novelists and writers William Faulkner and Willa Cather, and he has written five scholarly books: Faulkner’s Apocrypha: A Fable, Snopes, and the Spirit of Human Rebellion; Novel Frames: Literature as Guide to Race, Sex, and History in American Culture; Willa Cather and the Myth of American Migration; and In the Age of Distraction. His sixth book, co-authored with Noel Polk, Reading Faulkner: Absalom, Absalom!, is set to be published in March 2010. He has edited and co-edited numerous works, including a classroom edition of Willa Cather’s My Antonia, and has written dozens of essays, including analyses of affiliation and collegiality in the academy.
In addition to his scholarship in English, Urgo has a background in the social sciences, having received his received his bachelor’s degree from Haverford College in 1978 with a major in political science. He also holds a master’s degree from Wesleyan University and a master’s and Ph.D. in American civilization from Brown University.
Urgo was elected unanimously by the Board of Trustees.
“As we got to know Dr. Urgo, we found he understood St. Mary’s College, our sense of place, and shared our deep respect for the mission of a public liberal arts institution,” said Molly Mahoney, chair of the presidential search and member of the Board of Trustees.
The fact that the search was closed drew anger from some in the College community, but those involved with the search assured the community that all constituencies’ needs were taken into account.
“Members of the committee, that included all campus constituencies, were especially mindful of their duties and responsibilities to represent their campus colleagues thoughtfully,” said Mahoney.
“At the beginning of the search, the search committee sat down and created a scope document with input from all our constituencies about what we want in a president,” said senior Debbie Travers, Student Trustee. “Dr. Urgo fulfills all of those requirements. Beyond that, he strikes me as someone who genuinely cares about student s and is enthusiastic about the concept of the public liberal arts.
“Under the leadership of Dr. Urgo, I see the College moving forward and becoming an even better institution than it already is. I can’t wait for the student body to meet Dr. Urgo so that everyone can see for themselves how great of a fit he is for St. Mary’s,” she added.
Junior Danny Ruthenberg-Marshall, who will be the Student Trustee for the 2010-2011 school year, raised concerns about the lack of transparency in a closed search–transparency that he said “is critical to keeping any process above reproach.” Still, Ruthenberg-Marshall expressed hope that the closed search would “allow us to land the best candidate available.”
Ruthenberg-Marshall said that the closed nature of the search should not affect student-president relations because Urgo “can only be judged upon merit.” Moreover, he said, “I look forward to working with him…in order to ensure that the student voice is heard at the highest levels of Calvert.”
According to Mahoney, Urgo will be introduced to the campus community in early March. His biography is available in PDF form from the College home page.
The Board has announced Dr. Joseph Urgo, vice president for academic affairs and dean of faculty at Hamilton College, as the next President of St. Mary’s College.
After the abrupt end of the lengthy search process last semester and the secret new process, the Board demonstrated an unwillingness to be a transparent governing body. As evident by comments on The Point News Web site, Facebook posts and conversations with students, the process lacked the integrity and openness that students desire.
I can’t help but once again point out the irony of unilaterally scraping a fair and open process with a clear favorite for a closed, secret process when the arguments against the first clear favorite were that he would be autocratic and unwilling to listen to students. That said, as much as I would truly love to keep berating the Board for the inappropriate and disappointing way they made the most important decision they have had to make in years, it is over.
As students, we must welcome and support the new President. If we take our frustrations about the Board’s process out on Dr. Urgo, we risk demonstrating that the Board was somehow justified in not involving students in this decision.
Since new Presidents generally begin by laying out their vision for the school, let us begin by laying out what is most important to students. For me, the top priority must be creating a decision-making structure, from top to bottom, that frames each decision in terms of how it will affect students and how it can involve them in each decision.
The second priority has to be keeping tuition and other costs as low as possible. We understand that costs must go up; looking at the University of Maryland system’s tuition freeze over the past few years we know they must go up. The key is to make sure that cost increases are reasonable and that we do not see a 5+ percent jump in a single year.
Finally, we should favor improving current operations over new construction. I love the new boathouse, and replacing Anne Arundel would be great, but the school and students can function just as well without both. Students can’t function as well with slow internet, cold showers and reduced ARC hours.
According to a press released by the college earlier today the “Board of Trustees today named Dr. Joseph R. Urgo as the college’s next president. He will join the college July 1, 2010. Urgo currently serves as vice president for academic affairs and dean of faculty at Hamilton College in upstate New York.
At the beginning of the Board of Trustees meeting on Saturday, Feb. 20, Board Chairman James P. Muldoon announced that “We have extended an offer” to the selected presidential candidate. By the middle of the meeting, the Board received news that that the candidate had, in fact, accepted. The candidate appears to be coming from another college. Muldoon said that on Monday, the candidate would notify his or her campus of the decision, and then would come forward to the St. Mary’s Community.
“This is a great week for St. Mary’s College,” Muldoon said.
After campus visits by four finalists, followed by two weeks of deliberation, the Board of Trustees announced that it will continue the search for the College’s next President. In a letter to the College community on Oct. 21, Molly Mahoney, Chair of the Presidential Search Committee, explained that some candidates withdrew from consideration and the Board could not reach a consensus.
According to the Secretary of the Board of Trustees and Vice President of Business and Finance, Tom Botzman, the application process will reopen, the Executive Search Firm Isaacson Miller will solicit candidates and propose candidates from the search pool. Some candidates from the original pool may be included. From that pool, the Search Committee will select candidates for interviews and have finalists visit the campus. Botzman anticipates that the Board will end the search in time for the next President to take office by July 1.
As for the Board’s decision, Botzman felt they have a better idea of what the right match would be. “It was a hard thing to do, they wouldn’t have done it unless they were sure,” he said.
As a small liberal arts college and home to the Center for Democracy, there are certain values attributed to St. Marys that reflect the institutional character of the College. You would be hard pressed to find many on campus (students, faculty and staff alike) who would not describe St. Mary’s as fair, free, open minded, accepting and ultimately democratic campus. We are a community.
Yet the Board’s lack of communication as they restart the search process for our next President seems to stand in opposition to those values. The decision took place in closed door meetings in which our only representation on the Board, Debbie Travers, was not allowed. A one paragraph email stating that one or more of the candidates dropped out of the race and as such the Board is starting over is not sufficient.
In the middle of a recession with state and federal budget cuts looming, the board has decided to keep the school leaderless. This makes it impossible to hire, among other positions, a Vice President of Development, so that as of this moment our administration is being stretched beyond what seems reasonable.
If the Board is going to scrap the months of work completed by the Presidential Search Committee and deny the school a President during these tough fiscal times, they should at least defend their decision in a more substantial way. Instead,we have spent the past two weeks trying to sort through questions and rumors by ourselves.
While the Search Committee did an excellent job in communicating with the community about the progress of the search, over the last two weeks, at the most crucial point of the process, we’ve been left in the dark. We implore the Board to move forward transparently.
Halfway through October, there is still no word on the College’s next president. The Board of Trustees will meet Monday, Oct.18 to discuss the presidential search in a closed session by teleconference, a conversation that began at their last executive session on Oct. 3. As the Board deliberates, the campus buzzes with speculation and differing perspectives on the candidates.
Two weeks ago, at the conclusion of the presidential candidates’ campus visits, the Presidential Search Committee delivered their recommendations to the Board of Trustees. The recommendations have not been disclosed.
Some candidates have been receiving more attention on campus than others. In particular, there is a vocal group of alumni and students that oppose the potential selection of Jim Bacchus and have sent petitions to the Board of Trustees.
Most recently, 166 College alumni signed a letter arguing that Bacchus holds a narrow perspective on liberal arts and as a non-academic candidate, “he lacks higher education administrative experience and institutional fundraising experience.”
According to Ben Wyskida ‘99, many alumni were impressed with Baenninger’s experience in higher education and fundraising. He suggested that if polled, the alumni would most likely split between Baenninger and beginning a new search.
The letter also expresses concerns about clients Bacchus has represented through the Global Practice Group of Greenberg Traurig in Washington, DC and his 8 years as a judge on the Appellate Body of the World Trade Organization. Among the clients the alumni group finds most questionable are New Balance, Lennar Corporation and Group Menatep. Bacchus’ role in representing these companies is unclear, and in no case is there any indication of wrongdoing on his part. However, signatories feel it is fair to “ask whether or not his work for those institutions is consistent with the values of the College.”
Additionally, the letter asserts that three academic departments have rated Bacchus as unacceptable. However, according to Wyskida, these three departments have not been identified.
Faculty members have denied that this is the case. “I haven’t seen anything that indicates three whole departments don’t approve of a particular candidate,” said Chair of the Political Science Department, Michael J. G. Cain. “The faculty did not agree on all the candidates, but there was a good exchange, and a lot of people learned from the discussion about the strengths and weaknesses of the candidates.”
Prior to receiving the alumni letter, the Board of Trustees also received a student petition against Bacchus with 157 signatures. Petitioners offer the same argument addressed in the alumni letter. According to organizer Tess Wier, Bacchus’ potential strength as a fundraiser is not a sufficient quality for the next president. “I think the other candidates, particularly Kate Conway-Turner, have much more of a St. Mary’s feel to them; they are interested in issues of diversity and critical thinking, and they have experiencing approaching these through their work in higher education, which I think is the epitome of what a college president should do,” Wier said.
However, other students disagree with the petition and feel the anti-Bacchus movement is negative for the campus. “Voicing opposition to one or more candidates without promoting another surrounds the search with a lot of negativity and weakens our ability to find the best president for St. Mary’s,” said Vice President of SGA, Lisa Neu.
“It elevates his visibility above other candidates, who if offered the job may feel that the sole reason they were chosen was the fact that they are not Bacchus,” she said. “These candidates are also exploring opportunities at other schools, and from their perspective, why should they want to accept a second-hand offer? Also, if Bacchus is selected, the perceived hostility may affect the College’s ability to negotiate a mutually beneficial contract, and affect his opinion of the school.”
Some faculty members agreed. “The search committee has done a good job vetting candidates. I don’t think it’s the purpose of faculty, alumni or students to find things that would disqualify candidates in the eleventh hour,” said Cain.
Two members of the faculty served on both this Presidential Search and the last search that brought former President Maggie O’Brien to St. Mary’s—Bob Paul and Lorraine Glidden. According to Paul, there was none of the same opposition to any of the candidates in the last presidential search. However, Glidden said, “Campus opinion of candidates wasn’t as transparent last time.”
While campus views are widespread, members of the Search Committee have offered assurance that all constituencies were represented fairly. “I think the recommendation was made with a broad cross sectional view,” said Paul. “I have to listen to everybody, not just the loudest. There was strong support for some candidates and opposition to others but our charge was to represent the total faculty opinion. I think…we were fair and impartial.”
Before the next President is announced, the Board must decide on a candidate, await the candidate’s acceptance, and come to an agreement on a contract.
“It takes a lot of negotiation, such as salary and term of service. It takes a while, I think in Maggie’s case it may have been as long as two months,” said Paul.
I’m writing today on behalf of 165 alumni who signed on to a letter questioning the possible appointment of Rep. Bacchus as the next President of St. Mary’s. (The letter is at welovestmarys.wordpress.com) The letter spans 35 years of alumni, 14 majors, 19 states, 4 countries and a range of political and academic ideologies. Collectively we’ve invested over $3 million dollars into the institution. What’s common is a belief that for a variety of reasons – ranging from fundraising experience to the WTO to perspectives on the liberal arts to reports from friends who are still on campus – Rep. Bacchus is the wrong choice to lead St. Mary’s. We don’t question his desire to lead the school or his reasons for wanting to. But it’s a poor fit for the College.
If it turns out that Rep. Bacchus is appointed, it’s our hope that the students and The Point News will insist on a real campus discussion about his background in global trade, and what that background means. Rep. Bacchus doesn’t need to defend anything “to the death,” as he said in his visit. Rather he should be part of a vibrant, intelligent and ongoing discussion that is frank about the good and the bad in his 15 years at the WTO, in law, and in lobbying.
If any of the four are appointed, it’s our hope that The Point News and the student body will be vigilant and critical when necessary, ask hard questions and particularly mindful of where the dollars are coming from as the college fundraises and builds for the next decade.
If nobody is appointed, and the Search and debate continue (or even are sent back to the starting block), it’s our hope that the entire student body will be involved and make sure that your opinions are heard and your questions are answered. This can be dry work, getting into the weeds of administration and curricula and fundraising and Boards. But if you love the college as much as we do, it’s worth your time – and it’s an amazing education.
St. Mary’s was a beautiful one-of-a-kind home to so many of us. We miss it, every day. It deserves an inspiring leader with real vision, passion for the Liberal Arts, and an understanding of what makes St. Mary’s so remarkable. Don’t settle for anything less.
Ben Wyskida ’99
New York, NY
Editor in Chief of The Point News (1997)
Director of Publicity & Multimedia, The Nation