Leadership & Governance

A New President’s First Task Is Crisis Management

Tuajuanda C. Jordan, St. Mary's College of Maryland

February 16, 2015

Video produced by Carmen Mendoza and Lisa Philip


President Tuajuanda Jordan's priorities include stabilizing finances and enrollments at St. Mary’s College of Maryland after it missed its targets by significant margins.


SARA HEBEL: I'm here with Tuajuanda Jordan, who's the president of St. Mary's College of Maryland. President Jordan, thanks so much for coming by.

TUAJUANDA C. JORDAN: Thank you for having me. It's a pleasure.

SARA HEBEL: When you took over this summer as president at St. Mary's, you took on a tough assignment. St. Mary's has faced some significant budget challenges and enrollment shortfalls. What happened, and what needed to change?

TUAJUANDA C. JORDAN: I'm not really sure what happened. I only know the result. And the result was that one year they've made a major miss. It was predicted to be a major miss with respect to hitting the enrollment target, and the budget was set on their making the target. And so that disconnect created lots of problems, and the fact that it didn't come to light until the end made it incredibly challenging.

We had this year that had—we missed that target, so we had that low enrollment that has to work its way through the system before we can fully recover. And when we missed the target, because we're primarily tuition-driven, it had a major impact on the budget.

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So coming in, the question becomes, How do we stabilize the enrollment and turn this around? And what do we do about the budget situation? So the state of Maryland has been very good to us. But we have to be—we're a public school that's not part of the university system in the state. So we have to be more entrepreneurial and think more like private schools. So one of the things that we are trying to do now is to really change the culture where people are thinking like a private institution and about raising money and giving back to the institution.

With respect to our enrollment, when we're doing our budgets, we base the budget on a conservative estimate of what the enrollment is going to be and then take off 3 percent to give us some cushion there. And that also helps us as we're trying to figure out, What should we be doing? What should our targets be? What's the right size for our institution?

So some of the problems came from the fact that we're all smart people, and we do a lot of talking inside our heads, but we don't communicate them effectively to people. So then people think we're not being transparent. So one of the things I do, I talk about everything, right? It's incredibly important that people understand what our challenges are, where we think we might be going, and how can we all work together to get there?

So I talk a lot about community. I talk a lot about our being involved in this together and about creativity and problem solving. And I love problem solving. I'm a biochemist, and being able to think about those things and not be traditional about them, because we're at a day and time where you have to be a little bit more creative and innovative, think outside the box. And that's what I like to do. So it's a joy coming to work every day at St. Mary's College.

SARA HEBEL: What are some examples of thinking non-traditionally? What are some of the specific things you've done that have pushed problem solving in a new direction there?

TUAJUANDA C. JORDAN: Well, right now at St. Mary's, it's a little bit early to tell what things we're going to do, because I've only been there, like, six months or something like that. But it's just the fact that the communication style is very different, and how I try—you know, colleges and universities are very traditional, and we're very siloed. So I'm not siloed. And when we are talking about a problem, I try to get everybody's voice around that table, and I don't really care what your stature is in the college to try to think these things through. And that's what we've been trying to do with this college.

So even with my State of the College address, I want everybody there. And I take questions from everybody and listen to their input. And so that's not being innovative. That's just being a good leader right now, trying to figure out, What is this gem that I've inherited? And what's the true depth of the problems that we have and the challenges? And then once we identify those things, then we can think about the future and how to really stabilize that college and move it forward.

SARA HEBEL: You talked earlier about bringing in an entrepreneurial spirit and thinking more like a private college. What do you mean by that?

TUAJUANDA C. JORDAN: Well, being public, we have a tendency to rely on the state for your operating budget and capital budget. But we can't do that anymore. And with St. Mary's being not part of the system, we don't get all of the glory when they have extra money, and they get the extra money. We used to be protected when there were deficits in the state. We're not protected anymore.

So what can we do to bring in more funding to the college that is separate from thinking about government support and separate from thinking about tuition? So I've been challenging my faculty to think about ways by which we can sell our goods and use the money to help support the operating budget. And so trying to give them opportunities to say, Here are our strengths and expertise. This is what we can do for the local community, and bring some resources into there. And so I'm trying to give seed money to spark that kind of innovation that we need.

And I'm also working with doing that for the students, because students are much less confined and constrained by rules than we are. So they see problems differently, and they see some problems that we don't even recognize. So how do I give them support to solve those problems? And how do we share in potential profits there? So those are the things that we're working on at the college at the time.

SARA HEBEL: What surprised you most in your first few months at St. Mary's?

TUAJUANDA C. JORDAN: So when you read the literature on St. Mary's—especially when I was interviewing, they gave me a little booklet, talking about how it is to study at St. Mary's on the banks of this river. And it was, like, a really idyllic kind of place. And I was like, there's no way that this place is such a utopia. And it is. It is isolated. It's on that little peninsula down there. We're surrounded by water. It is beautiful, and it's the perfect place to think and be creative and do some real problem solving there. And I think that the fact that this picture that was painted for me is reality was a surprise to me.

Another thing that was surprising, though, was how welcome I feel on that campus. I feel like I'm home when I walk on that campus. There's something about the people who come there that you can tell when you belong. And at first I was worried, because I grew up in a part of Maryland that's different from Southern Maryland. Now, Southern Maryland has an interesting history, and I wasn't sure how comfortable I would be in Southern Maryland. But I am absolutely comfortable there. So those are things that surprised me.

And the fact that the community really does care about that college, and they want to be part of the solution, and that's good for me, because I don't like—thinking about town-gown—I don't like that kind of separation. And then we both have to have the synergistic relationship.

So how do you foster and enhance that? Because the people who are in that community, even if they don't go to the college and send their students there, they still support the college. And so how can we make sure that the college is supporting them and we're both helping each other? And that's something that we're working on.

SARA HEBEL: Lastly, I just want to ask, how will you judge whether you've been successful as a president there?

TUAJUANDA C. JORDAN: If I stay a long time, if the enrollment is stable, if the endowment has grown, if the diversity of my students has increased. And we talk about accessibility, affordability. So that's part of our mission, but at the same time our mission is about being an excellent liberal-arts college.

So success is going to be transitioning or evolving this place to the point where we still are true to our liberal-arts core, but we have programming that is very much 21st century and forward-looking, and that my students really reflect the changing demographic in the state. And when they're on that campus, they feel welcome and know that they will thrive and succeed beyond St Mary's. Then I'll know that it's been a successful tenure for me.

SARA HEBEL: Thanks for joining us today. I enjoyed the conversation.

TUAJUANDA C. JORDAN: Thank you, Sara.


Sara Hebel is assistant managing editor at The Chronicle. She directs a team of editors and reporters who cover broad trends in higher education and the people who grapple with them. She can be found on Twitter @shebel, or reached by email at sara.hebel@chronicle.com.