WMC president taking 6-month break in Dec.

Chambers planning sabbatical to write, map school's future

November 18, 1999|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,SUN STAFF

After presiding over steady enrollment increases, several building projects and a $40 million fund-raising drive, Western Maryland College's president is taking some time off.

Robert H. Chambers, president since 1984, will begin a six-month sabbatical when the fall semester classes end Dec. 10.

He said he plans to spend at least some of that time thinking about the college's future -- and that he has every intention of returning.

"I can't imagine retiring. I've never even given it a thought," said Chambers, 60.

Chambers is wrapping up work on a $40 million fund-raising campaign that started in 1996 and ends Dec. 31. The project has meant frequent trips and phone calls to tap into the network of alumni, corporate executives and foundations across the country.

He said the fund-raising work has been a continual challenge, but that it is paying off.

"We're going to meet that $40 million goal," he said.

Chambers also has presided over the school at a time of steady growth.

Undergraduate enrollment has increased from about 1,000 students six years ago to 1,543, without declines in admission standards. Combined SAT scores for the incoming freshman class have remained at just over 1100 throughout the 1990s, school officials say.

During the past decade, the school has also opened a 110-student Western Maryland College in Budapest, Hungary, for European students and completed $34 million in construction, including a $10 million library, a $13.4 million science building and $7 million worth of renovations to academic buildings.

"He's done an excellent job," said James I. Melhorn, chairman of the college board of trustees.

Chambers said he hopes to spend the sabbatical writing articles on higher education issues, reading a book a week and exploring how colleges such as Western Maryland should adapt to trends in higher education.

He sees two key trends: schools offering studies on the Internet and the number of "nontraditional," older part-time students increasing.

"What goes on here at this college or at any college today isn't radically different than what went on at colleges across the country 100 years ago, and with the approach of the new millennium, we have to think about that," he said.

On the top of Chambers' reading list is Christopher Ogden's biography of Moses and Walter Annenberg and "Lonesome Dove," a Larry McMurtry novel that he said has been highly recommended by several friends.

"People give me books all the time and I never have time to read them. I must have 50 books like that," he said.

Chambers, a North Carolina native and an expert on poet and novelist Robert Penn Warren, also plans to look for a subject that would give him a course to teach.

He came up with the course he is teaching at Western Maryland, a comparison course on modern Japanese and American literature, while on a sabbatical he took 20 years ago during his stint as a dean at Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pa.

Chambers will travel to Switzerland in April as part of a team appointed by the Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools to conduct a four-day accreditation review of Franklin College, a 250-student school for overseas Americans in Lugano, Switzerland.

Higher education experts say sabbaticals are commonly awarded to college faculty and administrators.

"It's not that unusual," said Tim McDonough, a spokesman for the Washington-based American Council on Education.

McDonough said surveys of college presidents have found that the average tenure in the job is 7.3 years and that about 40 percent of them are eligible for sabbaticals, with most becoming eligible after five years' service.

Melhorn said that Chambers, who has been at Western Maryland for more than 15 years, has earned his sabbatical. But he said it was awarded with one important condition.

"We expect him back in his office on the first of July," he said.

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