Goucher President Marks 10 Years with 'Beautiful' College
Despite ups and downs, students remain relatively happy as the college has grown.
Few of the students at Goucher College call the school's leader President Ungar. Or even Mr. Ungar. They just call him Sandy, and he's on a first-name basis with many of them.
More than a president, Sanford J. Ungar is a mentor and friend to Goucher's population of nearly 1,500 students. This month, he marked 10 years at the college.
The last several years have been tough for many small liberal arts colleges as they struggle with shrinking endowments, rising costs (tuition is now more than $36,000 per year) and the challenges of offering a unique brand of education.
"Nobody would argue that it's efficient to run a college for 1,500 students," Ungar said in an interview in his office last week. "There aren't a lot of economies of scale."
Goucher may be a small school, but Ungar prefers to think big. The college has grown by 25 percent since he took the helm.
His magnum opus, the 103,000-square-foot, $48 million Athenaeum, opened on campus in 2009, replacing the aging Julia Rogers Library and also serving as a social hub and classroom and event space.
"That was a really big project and kind of a dream of mine," Ungar said. "Rather than just renovate the old library and make it more usable, to come up with a new idea and something that would be many different things."
A journalist by trade, Ungar hosted NPR's "All Things Considered" in the early 1980s and took the helm at Goucher in 2001 after two years as director of Voice of America. In between, he spent 13 years as dean of American University's School of Communication.
"This job came up at just the right time," he said. "I visited this place and I had the same impression everybody does when visiting this place. It's just beautiful, peaceful, a good place to think."
Ungar still considers himself a journalist, and pens books and op-ed pieces, most recently an essay for the Columbia Journalism Review about WikiLeaks and government secrecy, and another piece for a German magazine about the influence of Fox News on American politics.
During Ungar's tenure, Goucher has gained significant national renown. In 2006, the college became the first (and, to date, only) college in the country to require that students take a study-abroad program. The school offers a stipend to assist students.
"I think this is a major issue for America today, how insular people still are about the whole world. And I think the vast majority of the American public - and I truly believe the House of Representatives - still believes the rest of the world is waiting for America to tell it what to do. If it ever did, it isn't anymore," Ungar said. "It's also important to learn that other countries have good ideas for us."
The shift, admittedly risky, paid off. Now, Ungar said, three-quarters of the students who decide to attend Goucher cite the study-abroad requirement as a factor.
"I think that that was a really positive thing because it goes along with the whole mindset of the school," said Rachel Williams, a senior from Westchester, NY and the student government president. Williams mentioned an American-born, Indonesian-raised friend who chose Goucher because of its cosmopolitan nature.
"She knew coming here everyone would be accepting of (her culture) and find it interesting," Williams said.
In 2005, Ungar launched the President's Forum, a series of talks that brings a politician or journalist to campus each semester. The diverse roster of speakers has included Karl Rove, Arianna Huffington, Ron Paul and Dan Rather. An anonymous donor underwrites conservative speakers.
Ungar called the forums "one of my favorite parts of the job."
Though the forums sometime draw objections and protests, mostly towards guests perceived as conservative, he believes the exposure is an important part of a liberal arts education.
"It's more interesting to bring a variety of people than everyone a certain group of people agree with," he said.
Goucher's widest and strangest national exposure came in 2009, when allegations of genocide surfaced against visiting professor Leopold Munyakazi of Rwanda. Last year, he lost his bid for asylum. Ungar said he plans to write an essay on the incident.
"I'm trying to find the right kind of lens for that, but I want to write about how the college experienced that and how I experienced that, which was pretty painful," he said. "Fortunately, people's attention spans are pretty short."
Ungar, 66, splits his time between his house on Goucher's campus and a home in Washington, DC, where his wife works. His home on campus sees its busiest use at the beginning of each academic year, when he hosts a barbecue for the freshman class and learns names of the students. He eats meals in campus dining halls occasionally and likes students to call him "Sandy."
"I think it's a sort of equalizing thing that I like. I don't like being on a pedestal," he said. "I like hearing people's stories, so it's easier to hear them if you're on a level with them."
That sensibility takes some by surprise.
"We'll be talking and he'll joke about something and it'll catch me off guard because I'm not used to joking with our school's president," said Shay Kettner, a junior from Baltimore and co-editor of The Quindecim, the student newspaper.
Though Goucher's students are largely satisfied - a 2004 Newsweek survey said Goucher had the happiest students in the country - it's not all sunshine on the Towson campus. The endowment, which plunged from its 2007 fiscal year peak of $217.8 million to $149.4 million in 2009, is slowly bouncing back. Ungar said there have been tough times, and there might be more ahead. But very little will change, he said.
"We face a challenge of how to do more with what we've got, including the faculty and staff. We have to be innovative about the sort of education we deliver and how it has an impact on people," he said. "I really believe in liberal arts education. I drank the Kool-Aid a long time ago."