College of Liberal Arts

University of Mississippi

Former UM English Chair Now Leading a Maryland College

Joseph Urgo, a former professor at the University of Mississippi, is now the president of St. Mary’s College in Maryland.

Urgo, a native of Connecticut, received his master’s degree and Ph.D. in American civilization from Brown University.

He taught at UM from 2000 to 2006 as both English professor and chair of the department. He became the chief academic officer at Hamilton College in New York in 2006. He received the position of president at St. Mary’s College in July 2010.

“While he was the chair of the English department, we all knew that Joe had the ability to take on greater responsibility and more complex tasks,” said Ivo Kamps, the current English department chair. “In some ways, after four or five years he had simply mastered the job of being chair, and the work became routine for him.”

Kamps said Urgo was still enthusiastic and creative about his job, but the department figured it might be tough to keep him.

“We were therefore disappointed, but not surprised when he took the position of dean of faculty at Hamilton College,” Kamps said. “The move came at the right time for him. To become the president of St. Mary’s seemed like the next logical step.”

Urgo said he felt like he would fit in well at St. Mary’s College.

“It’s good,” Urgo said. “I enjoy the public mission at St. Mary’s College, which is very similar to the public mission at Ole Miss. It also allows me to concentrate exclusively on an honors college.”

Urgo said one of the aspects of UM he really enjoyed was the Sally McDonnell Barksdale Honors College, for which he served on the governing council.

The upper-level courses he taught at UM focused mainly on William Faulkner’s literature. He led programs on campus such as the writing center and taught freshman seminars.

“I will hand it to Joe: He has a genuine gift for administration,” said Jay Watson, an English professor at UM. “Not everyone does.”

Watson said that being an administrator requires possessing an empathy for colleagues that not many professors possess.

“What I mean is that when you wake up and roll out of bed in the morning, the questions you look forward to answering, the challenges you find most meaningful and motivating, need to deal with how to help your students and faculty realize their full potential,” Watson said. “(You need to focus on) how to create an environment around them all that will help them be at their productive best.”

Urgo said he will still be teaching in his role as president.

“I still think of myself as a professor,” Urgo said.  “Now I tend to be teaching people about the mission of the liberal arts and the honors college. That’s what I’m doing now, and mostly who I’m teaching are public officials, state legislators, alumni, friends of the college, that sort of thing.”

Urgo made many changes and innovations in the departments he taught in, including the English department at UM.

“Most professors, and I am no exception, are motivated mainly by their own teaching and research,” Watson said. “But Joe, who is an outstanding scholar, by the way, reached a point in his career where he really began to find that other set of questions and challenges more meaningful.”

Watson said working under Urgo was a pleasure.

“Fortunately for him, and for those under his leadership, he has the talent to make a meaningful difference, as evidenced by how quickly he moved up the ranks, from department chair at Bryant College (in Rhode Island) and the University of Mississippi, to a dean’s position at Hamilton College in New York, to the position he now holds at St. Mary’s,” Watson said. “He’s one of the best administrators I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with.”

from DM by Amber Helsel