Planned leadership change at Great Books college stirs angst

The campus of St. John’s College is seen in a June 10, 2016 photo in Annapolis, Md. The college’s Board of Visitors and Governors proposes naming one president over the college’s two campuses in Annapolis, Maryland, and Santa Fe, New Mexico, instead of the current two presidents. Board members say they aim improve the college’s fiscal health by being more efficient, not change its unique curriculum. (AP Photo/Brian Witte)

ANNAPOLIS, Md. (AP) — Tiny St. John’s College offers the most venerable of liberal arts educations: a course of study founded firmly on discussions of the Great Books of western civilization.

These days, though, some say the college’s Board of Visitors and Governors strayed from the college’s spirit of inclusive dialogue as it made plans to consolidate leadership. The board proposes naming one president over the college’s two campuses in Annapolis, Maryland, and Santa Fe, New Mexico, instead of the current two presidents.

Board members say they aim to improve the college’s fiscal health, not change its unique curriculum. They say the plan is driven by the need to trim expenses and confront financial challenges that many colleges face, especially small ones, following the Great Recession.

“College boards have become very sensitive to the fact that they have to be running efficient operations,” said St. John’s board chairman Perry Lerner. “These are not times to ignore the priority of running an efficient operation.”

But critics say the plan took shape behind closed doors without sufficient student and faculty input, contrary to St. John’s tradition.

“To me, this is an example of a larger trend in colleges and universities where boards have shut out the people who truly comprise the college from decisions that affect them and, in St. John’s case, it’s a particularly pernicious thing to do, because we pride ourselves on deliberation and openness in the classroom in faculty meetings and in our governance,” said Mary Duffy, a 2004 Annapolis campus alumna. She has been following developments closely and publishing internal board documents online.

One of the nation’s oldest institutions of higher learning, St. John’s boasts that Maryland’s four signers of the Declaration of Independence helped found it in Annapolis in 1784, and its roots trace back to an earlier school founded in 1696. The Santa Fe campus was established in 1964.

Undergraduates at the two campuses, numbering fewer than 1,000 altogether, study classic texts from Plato to Einstein, participating in small seminars with the faculty.

With the announcement that Christopher Nelson is retiring as president after 25 years at the helm of the leafy campus nestled in Maryland’s historic capital beside the U.S. Naval Academy, the board is weighing a proposal to put both campuses under Santa Fe president Mark Roosevelt, who was appointed in January.

A great-grandson of former President Theodore Roosevelt, he had been president of Antioch College in Ohio since 2011. While there, he raised more than $80 million to revive the liberal arts institution.

Critics say Annapolis faculty members weren’t consulted in discussions leading up to the proposal, which was made public in May and is scheduled for a vote on Friday by the college’s board. While the college has recently been accepting comments from student and faculty, opponents question how much that input will affect the outcome. They fear the process is setting a bad precedent.

“The reason why these proposals are concerning is because even though dialogue permeates our entire school and our school’s culture, the manner and nature of these proposals seem to run the risk of allowing this culture to be moved from the forefront in the future,” said Sawyer Neale, secretary of the student government group in Annapolis, in a message to a reporter on Facebook. That group opposes the change because of insufficient notice and opportunity for participation.

Nelson, who is remaining in Annapolis through the next school year to ease the transition, says the issue of the two campuses’ governance has arisen before during a president’s retirement, and the campuses have had one president in the past. The plan, he said, is to streamline operations and save money by consolidating offices that are duplicated on both campuses.

“It appears that we can do this work with a smaller more efficient staff, because there’s less backing-and-forthing with people who have different ways of doing things, who have different opinions, different judgments and so on,” said Nelson — and he notes that he graduated from the Santa Fe campus.

Nelson also said the change isn’t expected to alter the curriculum or student life at the campuses. It’s also far from decided how the final proposal will look when the board votes.

Jonathan Tuck, who began teaching on the Annapolis campus in 1979, said there are fears that the board considers the college an anachronism in need of change. The college is so unlike others, it takes a while to understand it, said Tuck, who retired in 2013 but still serves as a tutor there.

“I worry that people who only have an incomplete knowledge of the principles of the college may make peremptory decisions about what we’re going to do, and we won’t have any power to resist that,” he said.

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