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!