The College and Its Mission


St Mary’s College of Maryland, designated the state’s honors college, is an independent public institution in the liberal arts tradition. We promote scholarship and creativity by challenging our students to achieve academic excellence through close relationships with faculty, classroom activities, and experiential learning. Our faculty and staff foster intellectual, social, and ethical development within a community dedicated to diversity and accessibility. We provide students with opportunities to understand and serve local, national, and global communities and to accomplish social change.

Founded on the site of Maryland’s first capital, the College stands as a living legacy to the ideals of tolerance. Our beautiful residential campus on the banks of the St. Mary’s River inspires our work, our play, and our commitment to the environment.

St. Mary’s College of Maryland values:

St. Mary’s College of Maryland pursues the following goals:


Nonsectarian since its founding in 1840, St. Mary’s enjoys a unique status in higher education as Maryland’s public honors college. Because it is a state college, St. Mary’s is committed to the ideals of affordability, accessibility, and diversity. As Maryland’s public honors college, St. Mary’s offers an undergraduate liberal arts education and small-college experience like those found at exceptional private colleges. St. Mary’s shares the hallmarks of private institutions: an outstanding faculty, talented students, high academic standards, a challenging curriculum, small classes, a sense of community, and a spirit of intellectual inquiry. By combining the virtues of public and private education, St. Mary’s provides a unique alternative for students and their families. Its spectacular waterfront setting in the heart of the Chesapeake Bay region, 70 miles southeast of Washington, D.C. and 95 miles south of Baltimore, also enhances the College’s uniqueness. The St. Mary’s campus is one of uncommon charm, inspiring a powerful sense of belonging.

Designated the state’s public honors college by the Maryland legislature in 1992, St. Mary’s has won widespread recognition for the friendly, caring quality of campus life and the academic excellence of its faculty and students. The College is consistently ranked as one of the top public liberal arts colleges in the nation by U.S. News & World Report, Kiplinger’s and The Princeton Review.

As a public institution offering the benefits of fine private colleges, St. Mary’s promotes excellence in every facet of campus life. Its first-rate faculty of teachers and scholars have gleaned their own educations at many of the world’s finest colleges and universities, and approximately 97 percent hold a Ph.D. or other terminal academic degree in their fields. St. Mary’s professors are exceptionally active in research and writing. Eleven of the current faculty have received Fulbright awards, and one is a National Book Award winner. Yet the faculty’s primary interest and central concern is teaching.

Small classes (the student-faculty ratio is 12 to 1), dedicated teachers, and an informal atmosphere encourage faculty and students to share in the intellectual life of the College, both in and out of the classroom. Professors serve as academic advisers, work with students in extracurricular programs, involve students in research, and mentor them in individualized projects.

Academic excellence extends to the student body. St. Mary’s is home to the Zeta Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa and the St. Mary’s College of Maryland Circle of Omicron Delta Kappa. In recent years, the College’s incoming first-year class has had one of the highest average SAT scores in Maryland’s public higher education system.

St. Mary’s alumni have distinguished themselves in every academic field and creative pursuit. They have achieved success in the nation’s top graduate schools, including Harvard, Yale, and Stanford, as well as in the working world. When the State of Maryland surveys graduates of its public colleges and universities, St. Mary’s alumni consistently report higher levels of satisfaction with their education than do alumni of the other institutions.


Over the decades, St. Mary’s has sought to balance its legacy with its future, pioneering new educational concepts and technologies while maintaining continuity with historical roots. Though the character of the school has changed, several key features have remained constant. Since its founding in 1840, St. Mary’s has been state-sponsored, publicly supported, separately administered by an independent board of trustees, nonsectarian, and devoted to providing an affordable liberal arts education. In 1992, the Maryland General Assembly granted the College a new institutional status designed to assure stable public funding. Named for St. Mary’s City, the College was founded as a “female seminary” (girls’ boarding school) and “living monument” to the original English settlers of Maryland and their “Act of Toleration.” Endorsing this idea as presented by the St. Mary’s County community, the Maryland General Assembly authorized the establishment of St. Mary’s as a “monument school,” a resource of and for the people of Maryland. Hundreds of the state’s citizens contributed money to construct the original school.

From the very first, St. Mary’s embraced the ideal of making an excellent education affordable. In 1846, the first board of trustees designed tuition and living costs to be substantially lower than those at similar schools. After 1868, when the General Assembly began giving the school annual appropriations, the seminary frequently educated up to half of its students—representing every county of the state and each legislative district of Baltimore City—free of charge. Although it struggled for survival in its first two decades, the seminary enjoyed a successful half-century following the Civil War, benefiting from state funding, popular approval, and conscientious trustees, many of whom served for as long as 30 years. During the 20th century, the school expanded its campus and enriched the quality of instruction to serve the growing numbers of young women, and eventually men, who desired a fine education. Adding to the stability of St. Mary’s was the fact that it has had only 10 principals/presidents between 1900 and 2010.

Twice in the 20th century—in 1924 and in 1947—crises threatened to destroy the school. Each time, the people of the county and the state rallied to save their “monument school” and to improve it. In January 1924, during a freezing blizzard, fire gutted the majestic 80-year-old Main Building, despite the valiant efforts of local residents. Trustees, state officials, and hundreds of alumnae and friends quickly rebuilt the school as students lived in temporary quarters. In 1927, their efforts were rewarded when St. Mary’s became Maryland’s first junior college, affording students the unique opportunity to complete four years of high school and two years of college at the same institution.

In 1947, the Maryland Commission on Higher Education slated St. Mary’s Female Seminary-Junior College for dissolution although it was fully accredited and had begun admitting male students. Before the governor could act, a large public outcry, prompted by tireless alumnae, not only saved the school from extinction, but created the momentum for removing the word “Female” and renaming it St. Mary’s Seminary Junior College (1949), and its eventual evolution into a four-year baccalaureate college (1967). In 1992, the Maryland legislature designated it the state’s public honors college.

Under the leadership of six presidents—M. Adele France (1923-1948), A. May Russell (1948-1969), J. Renwick Jackson, Jr. (1969-1982), Edward T. Lewis (1983-1996), Jane Margaret O’Brien (1996-2009), and Joseph R. Urgo (2010-present)—St. Mary’s College of Maryland has developed into the finest public liberal arts college in the Mid-Atlantic. In the past decade, the College has received national acclaim for the quality of its programs, the excellence of its faculty and students, and the magnificence of its waterfront campus.


St. Mary’s County is considered the “Mother County” of Maryland, a name signifying its location on the site of the first Maryland colony. Together with Calvert and Charles counties, St. Mary’s comprises a region known as Southern Maryland or the Western Shore of Maryland, a large, cove- and creek-carved peninsula situated between the lower Potomac River and the Chesapeake Bay. St. Mary’s County is the southernmost of these three counties. The College is located near the southern tip of the Southern Maryland peninsula, on the St. Mary’s River, a short distance from the Potomac River and its confluence with the Chesapeake Bay. Although it is the fastest-growing county in the state, with dynamic growth in the defense industry and retail establishments, St. Mary’s remains largely rural, with broad stretches of farmland and forest. Agriculture and the seafood industry have long figured prominently in the local economy. Watermen still harvest oysters in the cooler months, blue crabs and fish in the summer. Wildlife is plentiful in the region. Wild swans, ducks, and Canada geese winter at the creeks and ponds of the county every year. The center of the local defense industry and the driving economic force in the county is the Patuxent River Naval Air Station. A community in transition, St. Mary’s strives to preserve its rural character while accommodating growth.

The land now occupied by the campus of St. Mary’s College has played an important role in the evolution of the community and in the history of Maryland. The campus, lying on a broad bend of the St. Mary’s River, was the home of the Yaocomaco people during the 1600s. English colonists arrived aboard the Ark and Dove in 1634, determined to establish a settlement under a charter from King Charles I, authorizing them to take dominion of the lands surrounding the Chesapeake Bay. Led by Leonard Calvert, second son of Lord Baltimore, they came ashore within sight of where the College stands today, signed a treaty of peaceful coexistence with the Yaocomaco, and named their town St. Mary’s City. Though the settlement had ceased to flourish by the end of the 17th century, it was the capital of Maryland for 61 years (until 1695) and saw the beginnings of civil rights and representative government on this continent.

By an Act of Toleration adopted at St. Mary’s City in 1649, Maryland became an early site of religious freedom in the New World. The Act envisioned tolerance only between Roman Catholics and Protestants, but it represented an enormous triumph over the religious unrest in Europe and became a basis for today’s larger view of religious freedom. The “Freedom of Conscience” monument on the campus commemorates that event.

The first faint trumpet heralding the women’s suffrage movement was sounded in St. Mary’s City in 1648. There, Margaret Brent, a landowner who had performed significant service to the colony in straightening out its muddled finances, appeared before the colonial Assembly to demand for herself a vote equal to that of male landowners in the affairs of the settlement. Her plea was denied, but her cause has persisted and flourished.

St. Mary’s City is the fourth oldest permanent English colony in North America and the only 17th-century settlement site remaining largely undisturbed by subsequent development. Colonial St. Mary’s City virtually disappeared after Maryland’s capital moved to Annapolis in 1695. During the 1930s, however, archaeologists began excavating the area in an attempt to uncover traces of the settlement and learn more about colonial life. In 1966, a state agency, the St. Mary’s City Commission, was formed to preserve, interpret, and develop this important landmark site. Recognizing this, in 1969 the U.S. Secretary of the Interior designated the area, including part of the College campus, a national landmark. In the years since then, researchers have discovered thousands of artifacts along with the vestiges of numerous buildings—enough evidence to create a map of the 17th-century capital and describe the daily life of its inhabitants. College historians, anthropologists, and students have joined with the research staff of the resulting state park and living history museum, Historic St. Mary’s City (founded in 1984), to conduct excavations and historical research. The foundations of the building where Margaret Brent made her plea are exposed as a permanent interpretive center, completed in 2008.

In Historic St. Mary’s City, 17th-century America comes to life through exhibits, reconstructed buildings, and staff interpretations. St. Mary’s College students receive complimentary admission tickets to all exhibit areas, one example of the many ways in which the two institutions collaborate. In 1997, the Maryland General Assembly passed the Historic St. Mary’s City Act, which facilitates joint programming by the City and the College. For St. Mary’s students, this collaboration represents a rare opportunity to explore the American past.