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At St. John's College, proposal to put Santa Fe president in charge of Annapolis campus sparks worry

Kira Anderson, who just finished her sophomore year at St. John's College in Annapolis, is working at the school's library this summer. She's concerned about a proposed plan to make the president of the college's campus in Santa Fe, N.M., also in charge of the Annapolis campus.
Kira Anderson, who just finished her sophomore year at St. John's College in Annapolis, is working at the school's library this summer. She's concerned about a proposed plan to make the president of the college's campus in Santa Fe, N.M., also in charge of the Annapolis campus. (Jesse Coburn)

St. John's College, the liberal arts school that has campuses in Annapolis and New Mexico, is weighing whether to put its Santa Fe president in charge of both.

The proposal has drawn consternation from students and others who worry that it will relegate the local campus to second-class status.

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Administrators say they are considering the change in response to financial challenges, including an $11.5 million structural deficit in the last fiscal year. They have said the change would not diminish the Annapolis campus.

But the St. John's College Delegate Council, the student government group on campus, has opposed the proposal. Members say administrators haven't made it clear how it would save money.

They also say that the decision-making process was rushed and that student input was insufficient.

"We understand the very valid concerns the Board has regarding the structural deficits that our college faces, and applaud them for attempting to confront these concerns," five officers of the council wrote in a statement. "The college-wide president proposal might, in fact, help combat these issues, but we have yet to be shown any way in which it would do so."

St. John's College, which has nearly 900 students divided between the two campuses, is known for its focus on classical literature and music. All undergraduates study French and classical Greek, the Great Books of the Western canon, and the mathematicians Euclid and Ptolemy.

As at many small liberal arts colleges across the country, declining enrollments have strained the schools' finances. Leaders have been able to plug deficits with donations and other adjustments, spokesman Jim Reische said, but they see a need to streamline the administration. The school recently laid off seven employees who had duplicative roles on the two campuses.

St. John's traces it lineage to the preparatory King William's School, founded in 1696 in Annapolis. The brick building also hosted the upper house of the Maryland Assembly, local social clubs and the colony's free library.

The state granted a charter to the college in 1784. As enrollment grew in the postwar 20th century, administrators sought more space. Rather than expand in Annapolis, they accepted a donation of land in New Mexico and opened the Santa Fe campus in 1964.

Since then, St. John's has experimented with a single president who traveled between Annapolis and Santa Fe, as current Annapolis President Christopher B. Nelson did on an interim basis for 18 months in 2003-2005. But most recently, each campus has had a president that answered to a single governing board.

In a preliminary vote last month, the college's Board of Visitors and Governors favored making Santa Fe campus President Mark Roosevelt the most senior leader of the college. Nelson, president of the Annapolis campus for 25 years, plans to retire next spring.

The board would seek a replacement for Nelson, but that leader would answer to Roosevelt.

Perry Lerner, chair of the Board of Visitors and Governors, says the panel voted overwhelmingly for the change.

"Our campuses are equal in every respect," Lerner said. "I don't take seriously the thought that it was intended or in actuality will make one campus subordinate to each other."

The board opened a 30-day comment period on the proposal. A final vote is scheduled for June 18.

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Roger Kimball, a former member of the college's governing board, wrote this week that the change would leave Annapolis playing second fiddle to Santa Fe. In a column for RealClearPolitics, the conservative writer expressed concern that Roosevelt could change the college's culture and curriculum.

"Annapolis would be the kind of junior partner," Kimball told The Baltimore Sun. "I think it would put enormous pressure on the campus. I think it would be difficult to find a president to serve in that subordinate role. I think it would jeopardize the future of the college in ways that might not immediately be apparent."

But Roosevelt says a single leader for both campuses could better identify duplication in jobs and opportunities to streamline the administration.

"The way it's been with two equal presidents and a management committee, it's been kind of mushy," he said. "Everyone loves the program and thinks what St. John's does is beautiful. The vision is to offer it to as many able students as possible on both campuses and to build a financial structure for the college that will sustain this effort for many more generations to come."

Roosevelt says he would not touch the college's unique offerings.

"I have zero agenda in terms of transforming the academic program," he said. "This isn't a political issue."

Reische said the implication that Roosevelt would change the college's unique identity is "totally bogus."

"There are some people who would like to fit St. John's into the box of conservative classical education," Reische said. "That is not all that this place is."

Nelson supports the proposal but says the board needs to work out many practical details. The biggest advantage, he says, would be a clear line of accountability.

"It's very clear to me that it's a good thing to have a college-wide president, and I'm perfectly happy to provide my support to such a person," Nelson said. "What I don't know is how the proposals are going to play out, what the details are, how much time does a president spend on one campus.

"These questions are not easy, and they do rouse a lot of feelings. One of the issues, really, is I've been in this office for 25 years, so the change is felt all the more."

Classes at St. Johns have ended for the school year. Some students still on campus this week were concerned.

"I find it rather Orwellian," said Kira Anderson, a 19-year-old sophomore. The decision," she said, would "make one campus 'more equal' than the other."

Anderson said Roosevelt's ties to the New Mexico campus would leave the Annapolis campus subordinate to its Santa Fe sister.

"Most of the people here I've talked to feel quite the same," she said.

But Lucy Wright, a 22-year-old senior, was surprised by the controversy.

"I'm not sure where a lot of these concerns are coming from," she said. "I think it might just be a fear of change."

Adrian Trevisan, head of the college's alumni association, said members have had a spirited discussion about the proposal.

Although views were mixed, he said, the alumni board of directors supports a college-wide president.

"I think two parallel structures has led to a lot of redundancy and inefficiency," he said. "I think it'll make things run a lot more smoothly."

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