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Changes are afoot at St. Mary’s College of Maryland as administrators and trustees prepare to search for a new president following an enrollment and financial crisis earlier this year.

Gail Harmon, chair of the trustees, said the college had hoped to get 470 new students this semester, but that “was an overly optimistic goal.” At this point, she said, the college has only 19 fewer students than last year (when new transfers are included), but is still about 70 students short of the anticipated freshman class enrollment.

The college trustees approved $3.5 million in budget cuts at a meeting earlier this month to make up for the shortfall in tuition. The budget adjustments included salary adjustments that left the highest-paid employees with pay cuts while lower-paid employees received modest raises.

Ian Newbould, the college’s interim president, said by the time his temporary appointment ends — presumably next summer — he wants to be sure the admissions issue and resulting financial problems are “behind us.”

He also wants to start planning a new strategic direction for the college, which he said seems to be trying to operate as a private college, but with public funding.

“The more I get into it the more I think that’s somewhat the case,” said Newbould, who was named the college’s interim president following the departure of Joseph Urgo in June.

“I’m convinced that what we are doing now is not sustainable. It’s a new world out there,” he said.

Newbould said a survey given to students who had been admitted to St. Mary’s College but chose not to attend showed the No. 1 reason for that decision was the high costs at St. Mary’s, especially when available financial aid was considered.

Trustee Molly Mahoney Matthews said a report completed over the summer showed that there were many policy changes made during Urgo’s three-year tenure as president.

The former president pushed to move more financial aid from merit- to need-based, which ended up alienating some students, Matthews reported. The college will likely move back to where it was before and lower the percentage of aid going to need-based scholarships, Harmon said. This would allow for at least small amounts of merit-based aid to help show students who rank high academically and from “solid middle-class” families that they are “appreciated” and wanted at the college, she said.

The college admissions’ office tried to boost its average SAT scores, Matthews reported, but did not reach out effectively to all counties in Maryland and left several key positions in the office vacant.

Matthews said while the college wants to serve a diverse body of students, “if we do not have a financial model that works, we’re not going to be able to serve any students.”

The admissions office did not connect well with prospective students, the survey showed, including not following up sufficiently once students were offered admission.

That problem has already been remedied, as the new employees in the admissions office turn toward heavier use of social media and texting to stay in touch with prospective students, Newbould said.

“We really need to rejuvenate that office,” Harmon said.

She said this week that while the former admissions vice president was intelligent, she did not focus her efforts on recruitment.

“We’re in a position where we need to recruit and be out there telling our story,” Harmon said.

For instance, in the last academic year the college only went to schools in two counties in Maryland to recruit students, instead of the 13 counties it had visited in the past, Harmon said.

Also, professors were not encouraged to visit high schools to talk to students, a strategy that often had paid off in past recruitment efforts, Harmon said.

She said some of the issues may have surrounded the dismissal of the college’s former admissions director, Rich Edgar, in 2012. She said the college made some efforts to rehire him this summer.

“It ultimately didn’t bear fruit,” as they could not find an acceptable deal, Harmon said.

Another reason cited for the admissions lag was the lack of programs that students want to pursue. “I think that has to be looked at,” Newbould said.

Newbould said it may be time to look at adding new majors and minors to the college’s line up.

One suggestion was adding a business program, possibly a minor in management and marketing, that is not necessarily a norm on the list of degrees at liberal arts campuses but could attract more students.

Creating an environmental studies major (there is currently only a minor offered in that field of study) and incorporating a community education program with the college’s current master of arts in teaching degree are other possibilities.

Trustee John McAllister said the campus could consider a mechanical engineering degree, particularly if it connected with an advanced degree with the University System of Maryland.

Alan Dillingham, faculty senate president, said only a small percentage of students polled cited lack of programs as a reason contributing to them not choosing to attend St. Mary’s College.

“We have to, in a sense, double down on a liberal arts education,” Dillingham said. He said that there may be a need to add or change some programs, but it needs to be done in a deliberate, collaborative fashion.

Dillingham said the morale among faculty is low because of the admissions problem, stagnant salaries and the daily debates about what direction the college is going.

Searching for a president

Harmon said the trustees have begun to look at what characteristics they want to see in the college’s new president. The trustees had considered a “closed search,” but decided it would be more productive to institute a public search. The plan now is to bring the top two to four candidates to the college later this academic year to introduce them to faculty, staff and students.

While the ultimate decision on a new president falls to the trustees, Harmon said, they will weigh the opinions of others at the college. The trustees hope to have a new president in place by the start of the 2014 fall semester.

jyeatman@somdnews.com