Remember the story about the university president in Maryland who directed his faculty to "drown the bunnies" in order to improve their retention and graduation numbers? Well, according to Inside Higher Ed, he has gone after and fired faculty members that he considers disloyal-- including the adviser of the school paper that outed his bunny comment.
President Simon Newman was hired as the head of the small Roman Catholic university a year ago, with not an iota experience in higher education. Instead, Newman was plucked from the world of business, specializing in private equity and starting businesses.
Newman fired a tenured professor, Thane M. Naberhaus of the philosophy department, with a letter that included this rationale:
As an employee of Mount St. Mary's University, you owe a duty of loyalty to this university and to act in a manner consistent with that duty. However, your recent actions, in my opinion and that of others, have violated that duty and clearly justify your termination.
Newman seems to believe that loyalty to the university means never questioning the decisions of Newman himself. Newman blamed Naberhaus for "considerable damage" to the university, threatened him with a lawsuit, and banned him from the campus. His page has been wiped from the university website.
David Rehm, the provost who told Newman to hold off on his freshman flushing plan, was removed from his post as provost.
Newman also fired Edward Egan, a professor of law, alumnus, son of an alumnus, and former trustee of the university. Egan was the advisor of the Mountain Echo, the school newspaper that broke the story of Newman's bunny drowning instructions. A quick look at the Echo front page shows that the controversy has not died down in the last few weeks, with letters coming in from many alumni:
When I arrived on campus as a freshman in 1988, Mount St. Mary’s was featured in The Chronicle of Higher Learning for its innovative Freshman Core program. Today my mother wouldn’t enroll a dog there. It is sad to see my alma mater go downhill in this manner.
-- Laura R. Zeugner
After reading The Mountain Echo’s article, the Washington Post article, and the Board of Trustees letter to the Mountain Echo regarding the recent issues with attempts at “boosting” student retention rates, I am very disturbed not only by the initial approach, but the college’s response to the issue.
-- Ken Buckler, Editor, WashCo Chronicle
The onus is not on the newspaper to explain or defend. The paper does need to be accurate, offer all sides a chance to comment, and relate its facts in clear language, and you have done that. Yes, the result is sometimes messy and people get upset that words they thought private are now public. That is the price to pay for authority and power in a country with a free press
-- John W. Miller, Staff Reporter, Wall Street Journal
As an academic deeply invested in Catholic higher education, I wish the Mount well in every way. I thus write to assure Mr. Coyne that the Echo’s excellent reporting about student retention efforts will not in fact “render incalculable damage to the reputation of this University and its institutional integrity” (“Letter to the Editor,” 1/19/16). Quite the contrary, the fine work of the student reporters and editors is a testament to the Mount’s educational success. What would damage the institution’s reputation among other universities, both Catholic and secular, is the perception that its leaders are attempting to intimidate less powerful members of the community and stifle discussion about important matters. As every teacher knows, silencing students is incompatible with educating them.
-- Karen Stohr, Ph.D. Associate Professor, Philosophy, Senior Research Scholar, Kennedy Institute of Ethics, Georgetown University
The Mountain Echo ran one letter of support from a data analyst and alumnus in Newman's office, who said that of course, Newman never meant to push out low ability students who were hard workers. So maybe the intent was only to drown lazy bunnies?
Accounts of fallout from the article in the Mountain Echo paint a picture of a president and board chairman (John E. Coyne III) trying to browbeat the paper into silence. And now, under new advisers, the newest piece in the paper is a fun story about studying in Florence. The school paper has nothing in it about the firings.
And one other tidbit of info from the IHE report-- a dozen faculty members created a campus chapter of the American Association of University Professors less than a week before the purging of the three professors. The firings removed two of the twelve.
Meanwhile, Coyne has been trying to do damage control by offering explanation and justification for Newman's plan, like this e-mail to staff:
“We found that the retention program, as conceived, is indeed meant to retain students by identifying and helping at-risk students much earlier in their first semester — the first six weeks — than we have ever done before. It takes an innovative approach that includes gathering and analyzing information from a range of sources, including our faculty whom we have trained on how to have rich, supportive conversations with students. We also noted that the design of a (if necessary) thoughtful, eventual conversation about the student’s own discernment process and the refund of tuition was also intended to be in keeping with our Catholic identity.”
Nice try. The attempt to fire and silence dissenters shows just how co-operative and collegial university leaders are, particularly when faced with anything that doesn't go just as they want it to. The university has characterized Newman's "drown the bunnies" rhetoric as a poor metaphor choice, but it would seem to be revealing about the University's current operational philosophy.
And as far as discernment-- when you think that the cause of your bad PR is people who won't keep your secrets for you instead of your own stupid, ill-considered ideas, then you are in need of some serious discernment yourself. Mount St. Mary's may once have been a wonderful university, but right now it's an ugly, ugly mess, and the blame for that rests squarely on Newman and Coyne, which means that no matter how many people they fire for being "disloyal," Mount St. Mary's will be in trouble.