St. Mary's College selects its third president Annapolis native O'Brien takes office next summer

December 06, 1995|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,Staff Writer

In an article in Wednesday editions, the name of the husband of the newly designated president of St. Mary's College of Maryland was incorrect. He is James A. Grube.

The Sun regrets the errors.

Trustees for St. Mary's College of Maryland yesterday named energetic college executive Jane Margaret O'Brien to carry on the work of President Edward T. Lewis, who will retire next summer after 13 years.

"At a time when the broader community is looking for a rebirth in higher education, St. Mary's responds to the clamor," Dr. O'Brien, currently the president of Hollins College in Roanoke, Va. said yesterday.

FOR THE RECORD - CORRECTION

Gov. Parris N. Glendening announced the appointment at a news conference in Annapolis, emphasizing the importance placed on the 1,500-student school by the state. Dr. O'Brien, almost universally known as Maggie, will become the school's third president since the campus granted its first bachelor's degrees in 1971.

"It's just such a wonderful choice for the college," said Dr. Lewis, who championed Dr. O'Brien during talks with trustees about selecting his successor. "When a person comes on campus, you want to know, can she relate quickly and comfortably and easily with people? In many ways you expect candidates to be intelligent and articulate. But she is so comfortable with herself and with people. And her track record is something else."

Dr. O'Brien, 43, an Annapolis native and the mother of two boys, has rapidly ascended in academic administration. In 1981, after completing her doctorate in chemistry at the University of Delaware, she became the first female professor in the sciences at Middlebury College in Vermont. By her mid-30s, Dr. O'Brien was dean of faculty at the liberal arts school. Five years ago, she became president of Hollins, a private women's liberal arts college in Roanoke Valley.

At that school, she has pushed to integrate men more thoroughly into the graduate programs and to establish curricula with an international scope. Not only has she established links with universities in Mexico and Hong Kong, but she forged an agreement with Christie's auction house in London for a program in decorative arts. Approximately half of all Hollins undergraduates now take advantage of the school's opportunities to study abroad, Dr. O'Brien said.

She has also bolstered the graduate program, a co-educational student body which has grown to be roughly one-quarter of the student body. For Hollins' just-announced $40.8 million fund-raising drive, Dr. O'Brien and her staff have already secured $32 million in gifts and pledges. They expect to gain more from that before her departure on June 30.

"She is a whirling dervish in many ways. She had an energy, the limits of which have not been revealed to us," said Hollins political scientist Jake Wheeler, the most senior member of the school's faculty. When checking the times of campus telephone messages, he said, "it's nothing unusual for you to get a call from Maggie O'Brien at 3:45 a.m. I once told somebody that working for Maggie was no sport for the short-winded."

The St. Mary's campus Dr. O'Brien will inherit is sharply different from the school Dr. Lewis commanded when he first came to the remote liberal arts college in St. Mary's City. In a little over a decade, the one-time women's seminary has entirely recast itself. The change has been less a product of evolution than conscious change, as Dr. Lewis pursued a few key, cherished initiatives:

FTC * In 1988, St. Mary's shook free from the University of Maryland system, winning a steady state allocation and the ability to set its own tuition and budgets. He then packed the trustee board with nationally known figures -- like Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee and former Ambassador Paul Nitze -- to aid fund-raising efforts.

* In 1992, then Gov. William Donald Schaefer named the school Maryland's public honors college. This fall, the faculty voted to create a new, more focused curriculum that requires of all students a senior thesis or project.

* The school's administration moved to diversify the student body by race and socio-economic class while improving its academic profile. About 11 percent of students are black and more than a quarter of this year's freshmen are the first in their family to attend college, even as board scores of new students are rising.

The initiatives have meant that St. Mary's, while still a public campus, has projected an image similar to that of a private college.

Dr. O'Brien earned her undergraduate degree at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., then started her graduate studies at the University of Delaware, where her future husband was a graduate student. Her husband, James A. Gruber, is president of a company that provides wellness programs for corporations.

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