SALISBURY -- For the first time in three years, the budget is in the black in the town of Snow Hill. And new Town Manager Al Cohen is counting on a team from Salisbury State University to keep it that way.
Once almost $500,000 in debt, the town is trying to stay clear of problems with help from the university's Institute of Public Affairs and Civic Engagement (PACE), which officially opened last week.
Aimed at putting university experts and undergraduate researchers to work finding practical solutions to workaday problems of small-town governments, the institute is the latest example of the increasingly important role that Salisbury State is playing in the economic, cultural and academic life of the Eastern Shore.
The 6,000-student, primarily undergraduate school has shed its image as a backwater teachers college that was the "jock party school of the '70s," as one longtime administrator puts it.
That's the result of a 20-year effort to attract better students and to enhance the value of a Salisbury State degree -- an overhaul celebrated this year with high marks from three national magazines that ranked Salisbury State among the nation's best regional universities.
Salisbury State officials are crowing about their third straight year of recognition by U.S. News and World Report, which lists the university among the top 10 public regional campuses in the North.
This fall, the prestigious Princeton Review included Salisbury State among the top 331 colleges in the country -- putting the Eastern Shore college among the top 10 percent in the nation. The school also won praise from Kiplinger's magazine.
And with tuition and fees less than $10,000 a year, it looks like a bargain for many parents.
"It used to be, back in the mid-'80s when we'd find a student who'd had advanced placement courses in high school, we thought we really had a rising star," said admissions director Jane Dane. "Now, it's just something that's expected."
Dane says average combined SAT scores for incoming freshmen have risen to more than 1,100 (out of 1,600) from about 900 in 1988.
These days, 50 percent of Salisbury State's students are from the Baltimore-Washington area, with 25 percent from the Shore.
If young scholars aren't impressed by the elegant, white columns of Holloway Hall, the regal administrative center that housed the entire college when it was founded in 1925, the 3-year-old, 100,000-square-foot University Commons building usually gets their attention.
If that doesn't do the trick, university officials show off a campus so green it's been given arboretum status by the American Association of Botanical Gardens and Arboreta. Or they point out that there's a computer "port for every pillow" in the school's dormitory rooms.
Recruiters also point to Salisbury State's Division III national championship lacrosse team and its proximity to Ocean City, a scant 30 miles down the road.
Now, as Salisbury State searches for a president to replace William C. Merwin, who departed last summer after three years, there seems to be widespread confidence on campus that the university's growing national reputation will attract a large number of quality candidates who are interested in leading the school into the next century.
"There's increasing national recognition for what's happening here," said interim President Joel M. Jones, who will lead the university until a president is named next spring. "I've already had conversations with seven college presidents who are interested. I think sometimes it takes longer to change perceptions in your own area than to change perceptions nationally."
Faculty leaders say there's no turning back from the innovative public-private partnerships that have Salisbury State involved in such pursuits as economic development, designing a regional bus system, providing market research for local businesses and tourism directors, and conducting polls and budget analysis for small municipalities.
"Snow Hill is the best example of the kind of thing we can be doing," said political scientist Harry Basehart, who created PACE with philosophy professor Francis Kane.
Basehart's students have completed a citizen opinion survey for the nearby town of Fruitland. "We know that carefully supervised students can focus research and analysis where it's needed and produce real solutions," he said.
Officials are convinced that Salisbury State's programs in environmental health, environmental science and geographic science, as well as a wide range of projects and degree programs at the business school, have positioned the university to extend its reach far beyond the 130-acre campus in the Eastern Shore's commercial hub.
"All of this goes with our philosophy of learning by doing, and that goes for faculty as well as students," said Richard F. Bebee, dean of the Franklin P. Perdue School of Business. "A lot of institutions might talk about it, but we walk the walk.
"I've always felt that the business community is the training field for our students."
The business school, endowed almost 15 years ago with a $2.5 million stake from poultry magnate and Salisbury native Frank Perdue, has set the pace throughout Maryland's 3,000-square-mile portion of the Delmarva peninsula.
Through cooperative efforts with state and regional economic development officials and business owners, Salisbury State helped establish three small-business development centers that provide financial support, counseling and training for more than 600 businesses a year.
The university also established the Lower Shore Manufacturing Network, which includes 100 manufacturers and organizations in Wicomico, Worcester and Somerset counties, and serves as a trade organization and information clearinghouse for economic development inquiries.
The school's Project Management Group, headed by marketing-economics professor Memo Diriker, provides consulting services and market research for dozens of companies, nonprofit groups and government agencies.
"We provide the same services that any consulting firm might, but we have a competitive edge because we have been here on the Shore for 10 years; we know the Shore better than anyone else," said Diriker. "This is a great situation for students and clients, obviously, and the faculty take a lot back to the classroom."
Last summer, Diriker organized an interdisciplinary effort by more than 50 social service and transportation officials to begin developing a regional bus service for the rural Lower Shore, where unemployment rates are often twice the state average and the poor have little access to employment centers like Salisbury and Ocean City.
University leaders see more possibilities for cooperation among academic disciplines, particularly through a new five-year "4 plus 1" program that will allow science majors to minor in business, then enter a one-year Master of Business Administration program before moving on to careers in biotechnology.
"You need a science background in the biotech industry, but you've also got to be a business person to succeed," said Thomas W. Jones, dean of the Henson School of Sciences and Technology.
"Certainly, we're not the only ones doing this kind of thing," said Jones. "Internships, independent study, interdisciplinary programs are all part of a national trend.
"This is going to continue to grow at Salisbury State."