Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Drowning Bunnies To Raise Graduation Rates

Mount St. Mary's University is a relatively small school in Maryland, "located in the middle of everything." And their president would like to drown some bunnies.

Okay, only metaphorically. What Simon Newman would like to do is improve the university's retention numbers. And he would like to do it by "counseling out" students early who are judged likely to drop out later. Here's the lead from the college newspaper's story about the plan:

Even before this year’s freshman class arrived on campus in August, President Simon Newman was developing a plan to dismiss 20-25 of them before the end of September as a means of improving the Mount’s student retention numbers.

Newman was hired by the university just over a year ago. His previous experience? Thirty years in finance and investment. Perhaps that's why he used a less-than-felicitous metaphor to explain his plan. Unfortunately for him, the university apparently has a student newspaper that does real reporting, and they reported on Newman's plan-- and a few other things.  As reported in Inside Higher Education:

The student newspaper also reported (and The Washington Post quoted a professor confirming) that Newman told some faculty members they needed to change the way they think of struggling students. He reportedly said, “This is hard for you because you think of the students as cuddly bunnies, but you can’t. You just have to drown the bunnies … put a Glock to their heads.”

The Mountain Echo quotes emails from Newman as they lay out the specifics of the plan to "cull the class." The entering freshmen would take a "survey" that would help decide their fate (it was not called the "Have you made a terrible mistake by coming here" survey). In discussions by email with faculty who clearly had some misgivings about the plan, Newman had this to say:

My short term goal is to have 20-25 people leave by the 25th [of Sep.]. This one thing will boost our retention 4-5%. A larger committee or group needs to work on the details but I think you get the objective.

Several groups of faculty lobbied hard to head off Newman's plan, but found him unwilling to bend. When one suggested that using the survey in this manner could result in dismissing perfectly good students, Newman reportedly replied that "there will be some collateral damage."

Ultimately, the plan was thwarted because the committee responsible for coming up with te list of students to be "dismissed" simply refused to do the job, submitting no names.

Meanwhile, the university's board chairman has responded to the Mountain Echo article-- by blasting the newspaper. In a letter to the paper (which the paper published) John E. Coyne, III, blasts the article for giving a "grossly inaccurate impression." Plus he's really upset that the journalists are using private emails. And that they're using it to "advance your journalistic interests" and are doing so "without any concern for either the individual privacy interests of the faculty involved or the damage you will render to this University and its brand." As I am neither a real journalist nor affiliated with the University and its brand, I feel comfortable saying that the letter suggests that Coyne is a tool. But then, Coyne is also an investment banker, so he may feel protective of his banking bro.

But, those damn journalists, and their interest in telling people what's actually going. Why can they not understand that brands are not damaged by people doing stupid, secret, just-plain-wrong things, but are damaged by the people who reveal those secrets? Remember-- facts are only important when they are useful facts that help your brand. Otherwise, shut up and follow the talking points.

There are many lessons here, including the one about putting investment bankers in charge of education. But perhaps the biggest one is how the Law of Unintended Consequences intersects with Campbell's Law. There are so many plans to gather data about post-secondary schools by measuring things like graduation rate and retention rates, but here's just another example of how trying to Make Your Numbers invariably conflicts with the actual purpose of the institution.

In other words, if we insist on those kinds of metrics for colleges and universities, Newman is not going to be the last unqualified university head to get caught trying to drown the bunnies. In the meantime, the university might want to work on the wording of its acceptance letter-- "Congratulations! You have probably been accepted to Mount St. Mary's University. We'll see you in the fall, but you probably shouldn't unpack for a week or two."

Hats off to the reporters and editors and advisor of the Mountain Echo. Makes me feel good to know that in this day and age, there are still people trying to do the real job of journalism. Keep it up!


  1. This is what you get when you view students as products.

  2. We've got some charter high schools here in Arizona that have achieved their high ranking in US News & World Report through wholesale bunnycide. Not permitted by their charter to restrict enrollment through academic testing, their impressive average scores on SAT/ACT and state-mandated achievement tests are the result of structuring their curriculum and delivery methods to ensure failure of all but the cream of the crop, then counseling out the bunnies before the final tally is taken.

  3. An unfortunate choice of words, but aside from gaming the six year graduation rate, it is a reasonable idea. Even better would be not to admit them in the first place.

    If a student is not going to be able to graduate from a college, it is better for the student that the student leave earlier rather than later. Less debt, less foregone earnings.

    1. Especially since the money for the first term would be in the university's pocket by the time the bunnicide occurs.

    2. It would be better for the students if they drop out earlier rather than later. Accepting tuition payments from students that you are fairly certain will not be able to graduate is, I think, arguably immoral.

      The university, of course, would be financially better off the longer they stayed. Mt. Saint Mary's University charges $13,616 in tuition per semester. Every additional semester of poor academic performance of those 25 students would bring in an additional $340,000 in tuition. Do you think the university should be taking this tuition money from students that it knows are not likely to get a degree?

    3. And who's to say that with the proper support they wouldn't be able to graduate?

    4. Better for whom? Who says a child who struggles today won't be a rock star tomorrow? This idea that what data says today dictates a human being's entire future is at the heart of what has gone terribly awry.
      It makes my blood boil.
      Can't read by the end of kindergarten? You're not on track for first grade.
      Can't do algebra in 6th grade? You'll never graduate from high school.
      Low numbers on a secret, BS test? You are clearly not college ready.
      Bull sh*!. Complete and utter bull sh*!.

    5. How is it reasonable to give a survey to students under false pretenses, and then use that survey to kick out students without any due process according to the rules of the college? This "reasonable idea" would have resulted in many lawsuits that the college would have lost. Just imagine the difficulty that the dismissed students would have had trying to explain to other colleges about why they were dismissed? The parents would have sued immediately. This idea is really dumb, it has already hurt the college, and if I were on the board I would submit a motion to fire the president immediately.

  4. So, do students not pay until after September 25 ? And will Mount St. Mary cover the "late enrollment fee" for the students going somewhere else ? And help them with all the late homework (here where I live, the community colleges all start before August 25, so it would be a month late). And what are the criteria for kicking them out of MSM approximately 2-3 weeks after they arrive ? We know it's not for "not attending class" because that's already covered according to the faculty. So, MSM is planning to kick kids out, AFTER they've been admitted AND shown up, AND attended class regularly, and are NOT failing, AFTER they've paid at least something for tuition, AFTER it's too late to enroll somewhere else, and you think it's a reasonable idea ? TE, I'm starting to wonder if you can read.

    1. The plan was to have students take a survey, and then kick some out according to the survey results. I don't see how this would have been legal. The students are not the ones who are hare-brained. This college needs to get rid of this president immediately. This plan, if acted upon, would have resulted in some very pissed off families suing and winning suits against this college.

    2. I agree that it very likely would have been legally actionable -- among other things "we just thought you weren't going to do well" or the more honest "we're afraid you're going to mess up our data" -- no parent is going to like that. Now that this is done and some bad PR is being had, maybe enrollment will suffer. It sounds like the professoriate at MSM knows where to find its backbone -- that's a good reason to support tenure (the job for life kind, not the kind we K12'ers have) -- and also kudos to the editor of the student paper. How much better off would we be had we more real journalists among us ? Quite a lot I think.

  5. This just made me physically ill. I have a HS junior and I am sick just thinking about him going to a school like this. I'll be asking any many questions of a college or university before I agree to let them have my tuition dollars and my oldest boy. I am also a public school teacher and I co run the Opt Out Manatee group in FL. This shall be shared with anyone who will listen. This is sickening. The corporate takeover of our schools feels like it will never stop until public education, outside of charter schools is gone. PBE is up next and Maine is paving the way for another horrific Ed experiment on our children. If I could I would flee to a private school but I can't afford it.