Even as Washington College's prospects looked their brightest in several years, President Charles Trout fell victim to tough times for small, private colleges and deep trustee skepticism that he could pull the Chestertown campus out of them.
Although college officials and trustees insist Dr. Trout stepped down of his own will on Aug. 26, several people knowledgeable with the campus' affairs said he was virtually compelled to do so because he had lost the confidence of many members of the board of trustees. His departure is the culmination of a series of vacancies in the college's administration.
"A lot of the trustees are business people, and they don't understand academic institutions," said former Washington athletic director Geoff Miller, who left the Eastern Shore campus early this summer to take the same post at Goucher College. "There are so many fickle variables involved in 18-year-olds making up their minds about where to go to college. The business mind doesn't understand why you can't balance the bottom line."
In addition, Dr. Trout was dragged down by a riptide of faculty discontent with his chief lieutenant, Provost and Dean Gene Wubbels, several professors said.
Dr. Wubbels, a chemist from Grinnell College, Iowa, who arrived in Chestertown two years ago, quickly alienated the faculty he was supposed to lead. Last spring, the faculty issued a vote of no-confidence in him.
In his defense, Dr. Wubbels said the tally was skewed against him, because faculty members who did not want to debate the proposed measure either left before the vote or did not attend at all, according to an account in the Kent County News. Dr. Wubbels could not be reached for comment.
Dr. Trout took no action against his dean beyond informing trustees about the vote, infuriating Dr. Wubbels' opponents on the faculty. A respected historian whose appointment represented a shift in emphasis from the prodigious fund-raising of his predecessor, Douglass Cater, Dr. Trout subsequently saw support from the faculty erode.
On Aug. 3, Dr. Trout issued a memorandum stating that Dr. Wubbels had resigned. Twenty-three days later, Dr. Trout submitted his own resignation to trustees.
Dr. Trout had arrived on campus in the fall of 1990, with the promise of shoring up the school's academic standards after a decade as provost at Colgate University in Hamilton, N.Y.
The college's undergraduate enrollment, the majority of its student body, dipped from a high of 920 in Dr. Trout's first year to 831 last year. Officials project a total of 850 for the just-started school year. The percentage of minority students tripled in that time, from 5 percent to 15 percent.
Officials note that the number has hovered above 850 students for much of the past decade, but a permanent drop of 50 students who pay full tuition can make the difference between balanced budgets and deficits for a school such as Washington. The school's long-range plan now calls for a growth to roughly 1,150 students over the next five years.
Three out of every four students who have applied to Washington in the last decade have been accepted, according to figures provided by the college. Three out of ten students accepted then enroll. Both figures are roughly the same as last year's numbers for Goucher, Mount St. Mary's and Notre Dame colleges.
Like its peers, Washington has faced two difficult hurdles in attracting students: a lengthy decline in the number of 18- to 24-year-olds and ever-increasing tuition. Tuition, room and board now totals $20,594, only a few thousand dollars less than charges at Ivy League universities.
Efforts to attract students to campus and a concurrent move to diversify the student body led to big scholarships, meaning deep slashes in the actual cost to most students to attend the college and limiting the gains in revenue.
"In order to maintain either the quality or the diversity of a class, it's going to cost you money," said Kevin Coveney, Washington's vice president for admissions. "If institutions had no social consciences, they could save a lot of money."
Seventy 70 percent of Washington's students receive scholarships from federal, state and campus funds; not including loans, the actual cost to attend for those students is $8,000 to $9,000 a year, Mr. Coveney said, less than 50 percent of the full cost.
"That's a little high," said David Warren, president of the Washington, D.C.-based National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities. The group represents 850 private liberal arts campuses, including Washington College. "You see discounting taking place at schools given they feel caught between the Ivies, which are very pricey, and state institutions, which are a lot cheaper," he said.
"If you give unlimited financial aid, you can get as many students as you want," said Eugene Hamilton, an economics professor who recently served on a committee that looked at campus budgets. "It's really a crap-shoot. Everybody does it. You're trying to guess what other places will do, too.
"Until a couple of years ago, I never appreciated how difficult it was to balance a college's annual budget."
In order to survive, administrators at schools such as Washington College need to figure out what distinctive programs they can offer, focus their efforts and cut other costs, said Dr. Warren, former president of Ohio Wesleyan University. "A niche is what every institution needs," Dr. Warren said. "Some institutions won't be able to make that move."
John Moag, secretary of the board of trustees who has been designated to speak for the board, said it is the school's historic mission as a liberal arts college that may become increasingly attractive to students as more schools move toward career training.
The school is perhaps best known for its tradition -- it is the nation's 10th-oldest college -- and offers the nation's largest annual undergraduate writing prize.
Many faculty members continue to defend Dr. Trout's record on campus. The school has enrolled its third-largest freshman class, which boasts one of the highest average Scholastic Achievement Test scores in its history, officials said.
Officials project a balanced budget for the first time in several years. Two years ago, the college ran a deficit of $771,000 on expenditures of $20.3 million, and last year, it fell $522,000 in the red.
Although not a noted glad-hander, Dr. Trout helped to raise $16 million for the college in the past four years. And the size of the endowment increased from $19 million to $27 million during his tenure.
Yet, this year's seemingly stable finances belie questionable long-range prospects, several people closely familiar with the campus said, which can only be steadied by an intense fund-raising campaign. Much of the recent growth in the endowment followed the general rise of the value of stocks, one official said.
And without a clear direction, Dr. Warren and other higher education officials said, schools such as Washington may limp along, equally avoiding disaster and distinction.
"A lot of institutions have struggled," Dr. Trout said in an interview on the day of his resignation. "We're really back on target. That being the case, it's a good time for me to leave."