Tell us (s)now

On Saturday, Jan. 30, St. Mary’s county was hit by a massive snow storm, throwing much of the county into panic. The next day, when it was clear that roads would not be clear enough for professors and students to safely make it to campus and to classes, the school’s administration decided to close the school.

As per procedure, department heads were notified and they initiated a phone tree to tell their staff. Residence life notified RHCs and RAs. And an email was sent out to all students and faculty notifying all that the campus would indeed be closed on Monday, Feb. 1.

The only problem is that, as best as we can tell, the decision to close school was made sometime between noon and mid afternoon. Department heads and Residence life were notified shortly there after, and we know that an email was sent to RAs sometime around 4:00 p.m. In the next few hours (between 5:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m.) students found out from professors and staff that school would be closed. Needless to say, Facebook was ablaze with rumors.

Finally, at 9:30 p.m. an all student email was sent out confirming the rumors.

Now I understand the desire to give faculty and staff the first heads-up and even to notify Residence life before telling all students, but why the five-hour gap? It took those of us at The Point News from 6:00 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. to gather enough reliable sources, none of whom would go on the record, to confirm the rumors. You can chalk that up to our journalistic ineptitude or, and this is my choice, a culture of secrecy and fear.

Why would the administration choose to wait five hours before notifying students? According to several sources, the argument was to wait until a few of the liquor stores closed. While I am sure we all appreciate the concern, if this is true, that kind of paternalistic attitude is offensive.

Yes, all of this, without question, comes from a desire to be able to blow off work and go have fun. But it also comes from a desire to be treated as an equal part of this campus.

Almost without fail, when it comes to involving students or not, students are either not involved or are an afterthought. There was a five-hour delay in class cancellation notice. There are three times more faculty than students on the Presidential search committee. There was no student consultation before the implementation of Bradford.

I know it is the administration’s job, and they mean well, but this campus is our home. They do not work for some company whose action affects only distance consumers, they work for a college whose customers (let’s not forget that we students pay a lot to be here) live, eat, work, play, and exist right here.

So please show us that respect, and do not hide decisions from us in the name of our own good.

Finally, on behalf of all students, I’d like to thank public safety and the grounds crew for the hard work they did last weekend and are, as I write, doing again to clear paths and help stranded motorists.

Academic Budgets Cut

Students, faculty and staff gather to consider different budget options at the budget forum. (Rowan Copley)
Students, faculty and staff gather to consider different budget options at the budget forum. (Rowan Copley)

The College’s academic departments saw 15 percent of their yearly discretionary budget slashed earlier this spring, according to Provost Larry Vote and numerous department chairs.

Maryland Higher Education Student Advisory Council Representative Lauren Payne said the budget cuts were “unfortunate given that we are an Honors College and academics should be our first priority.” But, she added, “I know that St. Mary’s is not the only institution of higher education that is feeling the impact of these economic times”

Vice President for Business and Finance Tom Botzman said the cuts were necessitated by a budget shortfall of approximately 2.3 million dollars. Shrinking interest earnings and endowment funds, coupled with growing energy, food, travel, benefits and minimum wage costs caused the deficit. Also, the State of Maryland rescinded 125,000 dollars of funds from St. Mary’s, with an additional 232,000 dollars of cuts pending approval by the Board of Public Works.

The 2.3 million dollar discrepancy was partially offset by leaving vacant staff positions open and filling the College to capacity, but Botzman said, “We still needed about 750,000 dollars to close this fiscal year’s budget.” This burden was proportionally spread between each Vice President’s office and the Dean of Students, according to Botzman.

The Office of the Provost, Vote said, “had a target number to meet and 15 percent of each unit’s operating budget potentially allowed us to meet the target with the least amount of impact and most equity across the campus.”

Many academic departments were able to absorb the budget cuts without suffering extensive obstruction to their day-to-day operations.

“I don’t think it really affected us that much. My big concern is really on the teaching side. Since that budget was already allotted, it only had a small effect on us,” Michael Cain, the Political Science Department Chair, said.

Charles Adler, Chair of the Physics Department, added, “We were able to give the requested amount back without too much change in the department’s operation.”

English Department Chair Ruth Feingold said that the cuts would have “little to no” impact on English students. But, she added that, “Morale might be lower across the board.”

Still, the Biology Department – whose budget hovers above 100,000 dollars – “didn’t have as much money left in the kitty as we needed to pay back,” according to Department Chair Rachel Myerowitz.
“I was really scared, I thought I might jump out of a window because I didn’t know how we could give the money back,” she added.

Myerowitz credited Vote for being “flexible.” The department eventually was able to return 5,000 dollars after being asked for 16,000.

Biology students will see the department ordering fewer supplies, sharing reagents and traveling less this spring. “We won’t replace broken glassware. There’s a piece of equipment that is down, so we’ll try to catch the moment where it’s functional instead of replacing the software,” Myerowitz said.

Other departments are responding similarly; many are delaying new technology purchases, prioritizing the travel plans of professors and inviting fewer speakers to campus. Dave Kung, Chair of the Mathematics and Computer Science Departments, said he had to “postpone plans to build a network for Computer Science students.”

Overall, Vote said, “We have tried to minimize the effect on students. People will be asked to be more observant of waste and use of equipment. Some replacement purchases will be postponed, some materials may be in shorter supply, social events will be less expensive.”

While the College has attempted to shield students from feeling the effects of the budget rescission by cutting from various pools of funds, there are consequences, according to History Department Chair Tom Barrett. He noted the benefits of on-campus speakers. Also, Barrett said, “It would have been nice to be able to use some of that money to hire students to help us with research. That’s a direct value for students, in many different ways.”

The Chairs of both Mathematics and Political Science also anticipated possible consequences for their student-workers. Kung asked his department’s teaching assistants if they would be willing to work for credit instead of an hourly wage. Additionally, Cain said that Political Science students might not be able to conduct paid research as late into the semester as in previous years.

Many Department Chairs noted their relative unease over fiscal year 2010, which begins on July 1, 2009. “We’re very concerned about FY2010. We don’t know what’s going to happen there,” Barrett said.
While no academic budget cuts have been planned for the next fiscal year, Vote said, “The [economic] environment is unstable.  We will need to be ready for further action should it be called for.”

To address the College’s budget issues, Kung hosted an all-campus forum that was attended by about 50 students, faculty members and staff last Friday.

“I think there is a real benefit in getting the people on the ground – the students, the staff, the housekeepers – involved in finding solutions to budget cuts. They’re the people who see how the money is spent and might generate great ideas. Having this sort of forum generates a shared sense of sacrifice,” he said.

Senior Stephanie Hartwick attended the forum. She said, “Everyone needs to realize that every light they leave on, every load of clothes they dry, every paper towel they use drains money away from the livelihoods of the teachers and the staff we depend on.”

Students React to President O’Brien’s Planned Departure

President O’Brien’s resignation was met with reactions of surprise and sadness on the part of the student body. (Photo Courtesy of The Washington Post)
President O’Brien’s resignation was met with reactions of surprise and sadness on the part of the student body. (Photo Courtesy of The Washington Post)

After nearly thirteen years as the residing President of St. Mary’s College of Maryland, Jane Margaret “Maggie” O’Brien has decided to resign from office. The campus community has responded to the news with mixed opinions, but overall a genuine sense of loss.

In response to O’Brien’s sudden decision, first year Thaise Bower expressed her sorrow at the situation. Although she hasn’t been on campus for long, she still acknowledges that the beginning of her college experience has been memorable and pleasant. “Times are really good now, I don’t know if things will change,” she said.

“It came as sort of a surprise,” said senior Emily Hollis concerning the way in which O’Brien’s decision was made public through James Muldoon’s email on January 7th. Hollis wasn’t the only one surprised; many faculty members as well as students were unaware of O’Brien’s decision prior to the mass email. Junior Cameron Leischer was also taken aback when he first heard the news. “It’s a shame,” he said, “she helped with the sense of community that this school has. People who are involved in the community know her well and she added to the prestige of our school.”

“I was very surprised, I hadn’t heard any rumors about her wishes to resign,” said associate professor of English Jeffery Lamar Coleman, “given that she’s fairly young for a college president; I thought she would be around for a long time.” Coleman added that he has enjoyed having her as a colleague. He also stated that she has always been “accessible and available to the faculty” in dealing with issues or questions that have arisen over the years.

Junior Resident Assistant Zinash Seyoum was not shocked by the news of O’Brien’s resignation, however. “I’m sure that President O’Brien has her reasons since she has been here for so long,” said Seyoum, “but it’s definitely a loss to the college.” Seyoum, even though she didn’t know O’Brien on a personal level, remembers that O’Brien was very involved in Resident Assistant activities and procedures. “She came frequently to the R.A. meetings,” said Seyoum, “and provided a great deal of help to the students.”

The search for a new President has begun and recently an email was sent out in order to find two students from the freshman/ sophomore class body who are interested in becoming student representatives on the Presidential Search Committee. O’Brien has expressed her intentions of stepping down from office by June 30th, 2010, or until a new president has taken the position. As St. Mary’s awaits a new president, there is a lot of debate going on around campus as to how the new president, whoever he or she is, will impact the campus.

“My concern is whether or not it will change the mission of the college,” says Todd Eberly, an Assistant Professor for the Department of Political Science. While in his opinion it is not necessary for the new president to be chosen from within the current staff, he feels that the candidate should come from at least another public honors college or university.

Bower feels differently on the situation, however, expressing that it would be more beneficial to have someone from within our staff to try and fill the shoes of O’Brien; a feat that Leischer feels can not easily be done. “St. Mary’s is changing,” he said in regards to the new presidency among other recent events on campus, “having someone from within the St. Mary’s community would keep the school’s spirit, the spirit I was attracted to when I chose this school… I mean really, where did all the hippies go?”

On saying goodbye to our current president, and one who has definitely changed the face of what was once only the little school by the river by spearheading many of the projects and changes that this campus has undergone in recent years, Coleman states that “we’ll just have to adjust our relationship to viewing her instead as a member of the community. It’s not really goodbye.”

And as for Leischer’s concerns for the dwindling hippie population on campus, Coleman thoughtfully adds that “it could just be a lull, and not in concordance with Maggie’s departure.”

Maggie Prepares to Step Down

President Jane Margaret O’Brien, shown here speaking at the St. John’s Site Museum opening, recently announced her intention to resign her presidency at the College. (Stock Photo by Rowan Copley)
President Jane Margaret O’Brien, shown here speaking at the St. John’s Site Museum opening, recently announced her intention to resign her presidency at the College. (Stock Photo by Rowan Copley)

On January 7, during winter break, St. Mary’s students learned of President Jane Margaret O’Brien’s intention to resign her post as president of the College through an email message composed by James P. Muldoon, the Chairman of the Board of Trustees. The all-student email explained that, after she officially steps down, O’Brien will take a job with the Centre for Medieval and Renaissance Studies in Oxford, England. This past Saturday, January 24, The Point News was fortunate enough to sit down with O’Brien and talk about her past, present and future at the College just as the search for her successor was beginning.

The Point News: What will you miss most about St. Mary’s?

President Jane Margaret O’Brien: Because I will continue to live in this area I will not miss the landscape and, it’s strange to say, but the smell of estuarine areas is very important to me. I like the water; I like the edge of the water. I like the seasonal trees; I like the season of winter. I like the way winter is in Maryland. This area is so much my home.

I will miss mornings at the College. I will miss very much the student events. There is rarely an event that I go to where I don’t learn something that I’m surprised with.

I will miss the regular lectures and the regular programs that reveal themselves of personalities.

TPN: Can you speak a little bit about the transformation St. Mary’s has undergone in your 13 years as president?

JMO: We only had 1,046 beds on campus when I came here. One thing that I noticed was the lack of a critical mass, particularly on weekends. Our events have energy, intellectual energy, particularly for a community that is outside an urban area. That’s, to me, one of the most important parts of the campus now.

The goal was never to create prestige. It was to improve, as best we could, the learning environment. Our goal was to respond to the state of Maryland’s request to grow a place where 18-year-old students could come to college.

TPN: What were some of the hardest issues you’ve had to deal with during your tenure?

JMO: Eric Kafka, who was our Director of Counseling, and I once took a tally – this was perhaps five or six years ago – and found that every semester had started with a crisis. These were very sad personal events, accidents that had cost the lives of students. I would say that the personal loss in a community, when individuals have their freedom compromised, when lives are lost, those are the hardest things.

TPN: Why decide to leave the College now?

JMO: It takes a good year for a search process to be developed because there is the Board’s notification; there is the faculty’s notification, the students’ notification, alumni, etcetera. There is the process by which a search firm is hired for a national search like this, a search of this prestige. Then, the collection of candidates, the call to apply and nominate, the vetting and then there is a funnel, basically. 300 applicants, down to 30 airport interviews, down to about four who will come on campus to be interviewed. And, like all colleges, this is such a large family. You have seven constituencies – students, faculty, staff, trustees, alumni, parents and friends – who are going to want to know something about this person. It takes a long time. I wanted to be able to assure that the College had enough time to develop this search.

I have been, for the last ten years, working through a very important relationship for the College with the Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies. Their timing, as much as anything, has prompted my timing. We love to ask young people, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” But some people, even into their fifties still haven’t decided where they want to be when they grow up. I think that’s a wonderful aspect of contemporary life, still being able to dream what our next steps might be. Nobody has to be caught or locked.

At CMRS, I can apply a lot of the fundraising skills that I’ve learned in a place that I’ve become very fond of.

TPN: With the College’s relationship with CMRS, will you still be very involved with St. Mary’s?

JMO: Not the day to day. This question is a very prescient one. What will I miss? I’ll miss the day to day.

TPN: Can you describe the search process for our next president?

JMO: The Board is meeting [on] Thursday. Torre Meringolo will always be meeting with the Board, I will not. The sitting president, in my opinion, should have very little engagement with the selection, except counsel if anybody wishes it. The Board of Trustees has the authority and the privilege, primarily, in the choice of a president. They will be working with the faculty. After their next meeting, the Board will be in the stages of selecting a search consultant. That will probably be done in two months. There will be advertising, a call for nominations and applications.

Maggie cracks a joke as she speaks at the James P. Muldoon River Center dedication ceremony. (Stock Photo by Brendan Larrabee)
Maggie cracks a joke as she speaks at the James P. Muldoon River Center dedication ceremony. (Stock Photo by Brendan Larrabee)

Our hope is to make this as smooth as possible. The Board asked me to stay on through the selection of the next president and I agreed. They will, during the summer, start to develop the shortlist of candidates. So perhaps 300 or 400 applicants, by August or September they should have that down to a small pool. Typically there is an off campus interview. There will be students actually, I didn’t mention this, but there will be students involved. I suspect that [Student Trustee] Jeremy Pevner and [Student Trustee-in-Training] Debbie Travers will be involved in the discussions with the student body, probably [Student Government Association President] Sunny Schnitzer as well. When I was in the search process myself, there were two students on the search committee. That’s very important for communication to and from the student body.

TPN: You mentioned hiring a firm for a national search, but how many familiar faces do think we’ll see in the pool of candidates?

JMO: I think we are a very, very attractive school for a presidential candidate. The term that is often used, if someone is familiar with the institution, is an internal applicant. They come from the internal faculty, which would probably be most likely, or they come from a slightly extended network of the College. I’m sure there will be those individuals.

TPN: Some recognizable names are being passed around campus.

JMO: You’ll often find in the early part of a search where people will advance candidates and names. But really, until the on-campus interviews it’s a pretty wide-open field. And, as I said, there will probably be 300 candidates.

TPN: Just to pin this down, what are the odds of hiring a candidate who is already employed at St. Mary’s?

JMO: You can only look at the broader national patterns and the pattern is typically for schools to hire from the outside and from similar schools. Probably the most common appointment is a provost from a comparable institution. This will look again, just as it did in 1995 when I was hired, like a very attractive position for candidates.

TPN: You said you won’t be very involved in the search, but what do you think the College should be looking for in its next president?

JMO: Knowing college presidents, the most successful college presidents are academics. They are also almost long in the tooth, old, in management. Having an individual who has experience already in the core operating issues of a college or core operating issues of larger entities would, to me, be an absolute requisite. It’s as important to me as the academic leadership. The absence of either of those could create an imbalance in a person’s performance on behalf of the institution.

These days, having experience in fundraising is considered important, or having experience in legislatures. But I find those definitely secondary to strong management and financial understanding of institutions and academics. Beyond that, the president sets the tone for an institution. There are way too many books and movies that describe the dysfunction that occurs when heads of schools are troubled or distracted or in other ways not functioning. All members of the community have to be very involved. You really want consensus and excitement about one candidate in the end.