With a decree that “today marks a new beginning and a reaffirmation,” Joseph R. Urgo formally was installed as president of St. Mary’s College of Maryland in St. Mary’s City Saturday, March 26.
Urgo is by training a professor of English and was most recently chief academic officer at Hamilton College in upstate New York. A native of Hartford, Connecticut, Urgo also taught at Bryant College in Rhode Island, the University of Mississippi, and Vanderbilt, Syracuse, and Brown universities.
He replaces Jane Margaret O’Brien, who was president of St. Mary’s College for 13 years. Past president J. Renwick Jackson, president from 1969-1982, attended the ceremony.
In a nod to the college’s reputation for sustainability efforts, the day began with a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the new St. Mary’s Arboretum Association, an effort led by Urgo’s wife, Lesley, a founder of the association. Then, before Urgo’s inaugural remarks, their son, George Urgo, sang “I’m Ready” by Willie Dixon, giving the event complete family involvement. The day ended with a reception that gathered faculty, students, staff, alumni, and Urgo’s friends and mentors from years past. The students also conducted an “InURGOration” variety show in the evening.
In his inaugural address, Urgo spoke of how the liberal arts is about human passion, “the engine of human emotion behind all of human history.
“Yes, we need data; yes, we need technical skills; yes, we need assessment measures,” Urgo said. “But none of these processes and admonitions will move us forward with emotionally invested human beings. As the president of St. Mary’s College, I pledge to take this model of personal interaction, of investment in collaboration and influence, and make of it the core value of what we do here.”
As the first in his family to go to college, Urgo also emphasized the importance of inclusiveness. “As St. Mary’s College trustee emeritus J. Frank Raley has reminded me, our mission is to provide an elite education that is not elitist,” he said. “Our classes are for all classes.”
Urgo also talked of the importance of mentors in one’s career. His, George Monteiro, Brown professor emeritus, and Cecelia Tichi, Vanderbilt professor, attended the ceremony.
“In tribute to Joe Urgo,” said Tichi, “let me quote Ralph Waldo Emerson, who said, ‘The office of the scholar is to cheer, to raise, and to guide...by showing the facts amidst appearances.’ The era of the Urgo presidency will indeed, I predict, be one of superb guidance, elevation of spirit, and a clear-eyed, unblinking confrontation with the facts.”
Said Monteiro, who remembers a young Urgo coming to interview him before deciding where to get his PhD: “We need champions of the liberal arts, the best that has been thought and written, the best that has been made. We need teachers who believe in civilization, in civilized people, in civility itself. We have always looked to our teachers for that. And to see how that challenge has been met in an individual case, one need look only at Joe Urgo.
“He has been a teacher …, a peace-making chair of a department …, and a dean whose record of achievement has brought him here − as president. But through all this − as teacher and administrator − Joe has always been a scholar,” added Monteiro.
The ceremony ended with Urgo being ushered down a surprise gauntlet of well-wishers stretching from the Townhouse Green to Goodpaster Hall for a reception.
St. Mary's College of Maryland, designated the Maryland state honors college in 1992, is ranked one of the best public liberal arts schools in the nation by U.S. News & World Report. More than 2,000 students attend the college, nestled on the St. Mary's River in Southern Maryland.