St. Mary's College president to leave school in 1996


ST. MARY'S CITY -- Edward T. Lewis, who spent the past decade prodding St. Mary's College in Southern Maryland to raise itself from a backwater state school into a distinguished public liberal arts college, is giving up his presidency.

"I have a chance for a real good marriage," Dr. Lewis, 60, said earlier this week. "This is my second marriage; this is probably my last chance. I really want it to work. A president's life is no job to build a good marriage around."

Although he had hinted at his plans to senior trustees two years ago, Dr. Lewis broke the news publicly yesterday afternoon at a meeting of the faculty and staff, who gave him a standing ovation. Later in the afternoon, he commandeered a microphone at the main college cafeteria to inform students.

College officials said they intend to have a replacement named in December and in office next summer. Dr. Lewis said he has no immediate plans other than "walking on the beach -- at least, metaphorically," and spending time with his wife of 18 months and her 7-year-old daughter.

The wiry college president, his stretched vowels evoking his native New England, evolved from college dropout to Ivy League dean before coming to Maryland in 1983.

Faculty and students described Dr. Lewis as a constant and open presence -- "Ted" to all on campus -- who often sought opinions from them.

Founded in 1840 as a women's seminary and as a tribute to Maryland's Colonial settlers, the school incorporates Colonial-inspired architecture in its 275-acre campus along the banks of the St. Mary's River. It became a state liberal arts college in 1966.

Since his arrival in the fall of 1983, Dr. Lewis has generated excitement on campus in defending liberal arts education as opposed to pure career preparation. But he has been equally active off campus, twisting arms and bending knee to persuade state officials and key Maryland figures to support his drive.

When the state university system was created in 1988, the college ducked out of it. The unceasing lobbying of Dr. Lewis secured independence from Annapolis and College Park to set academic and financial policy in exchange for reduced levels of funding from the state. In 1992, then-Gov. William Donald Schaefer signed a law making the school Maryland's public "honors college," an unusual designation for an American state school.

Dr. Lewis said the moves were the only way he could envision the continued improvement of the education offered at St. Mary's. Although almost entirely unknown outside the state during its 150-year history, St. Mary's has appeared recently in national rankings of schools by U.S. News and World Report and Money magazines.

Much of the school's momentum has been driven by Dr. Lewis' relentless huckstering, coaxing people with little or no direct stake in the school to care about it. Taking advantage of Southern Maryland's popularity for vacation homes with the Washington set, he has attracted a startling array of national figures to the board of trustees, including former Ambassador Paul H. Nitze, former Washington Post Executive Editor Benjamin C. Bradlee, retired Army General Andrew Goodpaster, former Johns Hopkins University president Steven Muller and U.S. Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, a Baltimore Democrat.

"The [Maryland] Board of Regents don't hit this caliber," said state Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, a Baltimore Democrat who is chairwoman of the Budget and Taxation committee.

That prominence, in turn, has helped Dr. Lewis raise money: since 1984, private giving has leapt from $44,000 to $3.5 million annually. In the past five years, the college has added a new library, a science building and townhouse-style dorms that blend into the historic campus.

Under Dr. Lewis, the college made plans to double its in-state tuition in five years, from $2,500 in the 1992-1993 school year to $5,000 in 1997. (Total costs are now slightly more than $10,000 a year.) Some administrators at other public campuses have questioned Dr. Lewis' approach, saying he has privatized the campus and cut off access to what remains a public school.

In response, he points to a few other numbers: The proportion of black students has more than doubled to 14 percent of the

school's 1,500 student population. And, he said, most tellingly, 27 percent of next year's freshman class will be the first in their families ever to attend college, the highest level recorded here.

"You can play all sorts of games with smoke and mirrors -- and I'm not above that -- but you can't do that successfully without a strong faculty," Dr. Lewis said. "The worst thing you can do is hire a faculty who's just good. You've got to have extraordinary people."

Dr. Lewis was not always so concerned with education.

He is a native of Warwick, R.I., the son of an insurance company manager and a homemaker who had no more than an eighth-grade education. He attended North Carolina State University, but withdrew after two years. He served in the U.S. Army for two years during the Korean War.

The war's end took him to Union College in Schenectady, N.Y., a school that provided him with a summer stipend to study in Italy. Instead of returning, he stayed in Europe for a year.

"My parents were so annoyed they never sent me any money, which was a great thing," he said. "I just scraped by. I repaired railroad tracks in Frankfurt that had been bombed by Americans [in World War II]. I painted houses. I walked dogs."

He return to Union College, graduating at the age of 26, and turned his hand to journalism, which he also quit after two years. "I decided I wanted to write," he said. "I certainly failed at that. But I learned to care about language in a way that you only can if you care about words and their meaning."

He went on to graduate study, earning his Ph.D. in English from the University of Denver.

His academic career took him to the University of Puerto Rico, where he was assistant chairman of the English department, and then to Cornell University, where he was an associate dean of the business school.

He still talks in 1950s slang about running a college, like a jazz musician using terms from the streets. "To build an institution, it's like getting a fix," he said. "If you're really building, it's like a fix every day. It's excitement."

On the other hand, "It squeezes out all the time people take to nourish themselves," he said. "When you squeeze that out year after year, you feel empty. Like it or not, you become empty."

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