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End Note

The Hour When the Ship Comes In

A president’s tale of displaced students—and how administrators found them a home on the water
University Business, Jan 2012
cruise ship

I’ve had a soundtrack to the events recounted here running through my mind: “Oh the time will come up / When the winds will stop / And the breeze will cease to be breathin’ / Like the stillness in the wind / ‘Fore the hurricane begins / The hour when the ship comes in…”

That’s the opening stanza to Bob Dylan’s “When the Ship Comes In,” from the album, The Times They Are A-Changin’. We opened this fall semester, the weekend of first-year orientation, with the arrival of Hurricane Irene. That Saturday evening, we were in lockdown mode, with students secured in their residence halls. In the weeks following, we had a string of high temperatures and humidity. In two residence halls, some students began having respiratory problems. Room inspections revealed mold—one of these halls had flooded during the hurricane—severe enough to warrant immediate action.

Over the fall break, we asked students to evacuate these two halls to allow a thorough cleaning. We hired a professional  company to do the work quickly and efficiently. When we checked mold levels again, we were surprised—and dismayed—to see them as high as before the cleaning. Further inspection revealed mold growing on HVAC pipes behind ceiling tiles. Experts advised closing the buildings. We needed to remove ceiling tiles, remove pipe insulation, clean the pipes and re-insulate. We’d also need to remove and inspect all heating and cooling units in individual rooms. The process would take between three and six weeks and the students—340 of them—would have to be relocated.

A cruise ship about to pass the mouth of the Chesapeake was empty, for sale, and perhaps open to rental.

St. Mary’s College of Maryland is a public, residential liberal arts college, designated as the state’s honors college, with a twin mission to maintain high academic standards and to make that education, in the language of our legislation, “affordable to all and thriving on diversity.” The state helps us keep our tuition at about half that of our private peers. Some 90 percent of our students live on campus, and we’re at residence hall capacity.

We found rooms for 100 students on campus—turning doubles into triples, reassigning common rooms, and finding other means of creative, livable crowding. For the remaining 240, we rented hotel rooms. St. Mary’s College is rural and remote, with no hotels closer than 10 miles or so. No hotel had the capacity to house all 240 students. We rented rooms at three hotels, one nearly 20 miles away. The situation was untenable. With 1,800 students on our campus, the displacement of 240 to off-campus housing struck our very core—it violated our mission.

Making Use of the Shoreline

No one had to say anything to anybody, but everyone was thinking about alternatives. Lists of faculty and neighbors willing to take in students began to circulate. We looked into trailers and other temporary units. We considered turning the gymnasium into a shelter. The folks who oversee the waterfront started talking about houseboats and ocean liners.

Located on the shoreline of the St. Mary’s River, we have extensive waterfront activity, including a nationally ranked sailing program. Students may check out sailboats, kayaks, and even larger vessels, if they have the expertise, from our inventory.

Throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, the most efficient way to get to St. Mary’s was by boat. In 1634, the colony’s first European settlers came ashore and established St. Mary’s City, now a museum adjacent to campus that marks Maryland’s origins.

So, when our waterfront director called to say an alumnus had identified a cruise ship en route from Newfoundland, about to pass the mouth of the Chesapeake, and that it was empty, for sale, and perhaps open to rental, it seemed like a perfectly ‘St. Mary’s’ solution. We learned the price would be equivalent, if not less than the hotel (and attendant transportation) costs, and the deal was clinched.

We moved 240 students into a variety of cabins aboard the Sea Voyager, restoring our residential campus community, and reminding us of our debt to the St. Mary’s River as a source of campus vitality and the historical origin of the state and college. The operation will hit our reserves hard, both for the mold remediation and the ship rental. But we will have seen through a crisis with our core mission not only preserved, but also deepened through a return to the inspiration provided by the river whose name we share. “Like the stillness in the wind / ’Fore the hurricane begins / The hour when the ship comes in.”

Joseph Urgo is president of St. Mary’s College of Maryland.