St. Mary's excellence began with Jackson

The Education Beat

Book: Former president writes a memoir about turning the small school into a top-notch public liberal arts college.

The Education Beat

November 06, 2002|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

RENWICK JACKSON is back.

I'd forgotten him for 20 winters. One February day in 1982, after a tempestuous dozen years as president of St. Mary's College of Maryland, Jackson walked away from his job and his marriage. He left behind many admirers and true believers, as well as bitter enemies. There seemed no middle ground in the world's estimation of Ren Jackson.

Jackson also left behind a school "with the look and appeal of a private liberal arts college," I wrote then. Jackson, I said, had managed to turn the former St. Mary's Seminary Junior College into the "Swarthmore of public colleges."

And though two subsequent presidents, Edward T. Lewis and Margaret O'Brien, have built on Jackson's work, it was he who laid the foundation.

It turned out that Jackson kept good accounts of his time at St. Mary's, and when he moved to New York two decades ago, he took his journals and boxes of documents with him. Now he's out with a remarkably detailed self-published memoir, The Golden Run: The Story of St. Mary's College of Maryland, 1968-1982 (536 pages, McMullan Publishing Co., Brookhaven Hamlet, N.Y. 11719, $29).

Like everything else about Jackson, the book is most unusual. It's dedicated to the wife he left and their family. It's brutally frank, and though it describes events of 20 to 30 years ago, it's written in the present tense.

Jackson tells the story in five parts: Genesis, Exodus, Wilderness, Tastes of the Promised Land, and the Promised Land. That's how Jackson regarded his sojourn at the Southern Maryland college named for the state's first settlement.

"I tried to tell the story honestly," Jackson said the other day over lunch in Baltimore, "even when it cut into me."

It cuts into Jackson, and into many others, living and dead. Here's Jackson, for example, on the faculty and alumni he encountered on his appointment in 1969: "Most of the present faculty and administrative staff are albatrosses. Most of the alumni are a bellyache."

Running a college of any kind is no picnic. Building one from scratch, as Jackson did, requires political skill, fortitude, good luck and timing. Failure seems imminent at several points in the memoir, and the reader is reminded that the politics of higher education can be vicious (perhaps, someone suggested, because the stakes are so low).

Then there's the occasional disaster, as when Jackson tours the campus in the aftermath of an ill-timed state police drug bust in 1973.

"Acrid smells burn my nostrils. I notice shattered glass, broken furniture, empty canisters, smashed police cars and remember the explosions and smoke of the night. Tears come to my eyes."

During Jackson's tenure, his efforts to turn St. Mary's into a quality public liberal arts college were opposed by what he calls a "subculture of the faculty" and by many Maryland higher-education leaders, not to mention powerful legislators and St. Mary's politicians. The school nearly lost its regional accreditation. Jackson (and his successors) had to fight to maintain the school's independence from the Maryland university system.

Jackson's last days were the stuff of soap opera. Alison Baker, the academic vice president appointed by Jackson, had become a "powerful surge of creative energy on the campus." And, Jackson writes, he had fallen in love with her. He realized, he writes, that when he left St. Mary's, he would leave his wife, Elizabeth, too.

Jackson worked on his memoir for nearly all of the ensuing two decades. He could never sell it to a major publisher, he said, because "I was told it was too remote."

Now 74 and robust -- he body surfs on Fire Island for recreation -- Jackson has held a number of jobs since he left St. Mary's. He's taught at a theological seminary and a community college, published a biweekly newspaper and worked for the National Conference of Christians and Jews. He described himself as a minister in the Community of the Creator Spirit. "It's spiritually based, not Christian," he said.

Jackson hopes there will be a gathering early next year of the founders of the modern St. Mary's. He wants everyone invited -- students, faculty and administrators, politicians, friends and foes.

Why would anyone want to return to confront the foes of yesteryear, some of whom despise Jackson to this day?

"There's a Scotch-Irish saying, `All our wars are happy. All our songs are sad.' I relish the good encounter."

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