Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Maryland University President's Loyalty Purge

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.


  1. MSM students need to give the president what he wants - they should get out while the getting is good, while their transcript still means something to a place they could transfer to. At the rate this place is going, their degrees will be useful if the school cuts back on toilet paper. This Newman guy is making a joke of the school.

  2. The president serves at the pleasure of the board, so any blame that falls on Newman falls equally on the board.

    Again, though, it seems to me that the immoral thing is to jolly the students along, draining them of as much money as possible, by telling them they will graduate from an institution when in fact it is highly unlikely that they will graduate.

    As I said before, better not to have admitted the students in the first place, but if they are going to drop out it is better FOR THE STUDENTS that they drop out sooner rather than later.

    1. 1. Who was telling students they would graduate? Who is "jollying them along," or is that your interpretation? Admitting students to the institution is not a promise that they will graduate.
      2. Many people attend college without graduating, and still appreciate the learning and growth experience.
      3. Are we so trusting of the metrics that it is okay to label 20-25 students as certain failures before they even begin? Good luck for anyone ever breaking free of societal expectations if we all accept this thinking.

    2. Here's a thought. Isn't America about the chance to pursue dreams? My undergrad institution will consciously take a chance on some students who do not "look good" traditionally for college success. They do it above board with a contract for performance goals (and behavioral goals too, if appropriate) and will dismiss students if the agreements are not met. This is in contradistinction to places like, oh, Harvard, where once a student is in, the school will do everything in its power to get him or her through with a degree. There are ways to take the moral high ground that are not either cynically denying all long shot attempts to succeed or making a degree a foregone conclusion of the initial acceptance into the institution.

      In addition, I do not trust college admissions offices or any Freshman course professors to have a crystal ball of insight into who will succeed or fail over the course of the degree program. (Or any other supposedly predictive tool, like a survey.) The "drowning bunnies" approach shows an appalling lack of imagination among all ts other appalling aspects.

    3. Admitting students is not the same as telling them they would graduate. Admitting students that you are confident will not graduate is fraudulent. Who was jollying them along? All the folks that said just stay a little longer, work a little harder, pay us just a little more in tuition and you will succeed despite your apparent inability now. It sounds like one of the scams you hear about on the internet. Here is some reporting on these scams: http://www.npr.org/sections/money/2016/01/29/464859624/episode-680-anatomy-of-a-scam

      Many people do drop out of college, and no doubt some do appreciate the experience. Colleges and universities, including my own, have been making that argument for years to explain their low retention rates (at my university 1 out of every 5 students does not return for their second year). Lets ask the students what they think and lets look at the earnings for students with a high school degree, some college, and a college degree. The median weekly earnings for a person with a high school degree in 2014 was $668, the median earning for someone with some college and no degree was $741 and the median earnings for someone with a BA degree was $1,101 (link: http://www.bls.gov/emp/ep_chart_001.htm ) Do you really think that the students going to this school are after the extra $73 dollars a week that they would make from having some college or were they after the extra $433 a week that come with a BA degree?

      The school trusts its metrics to deny admission to students. Some schools trust their metrics to deny admission to many more students than the admit. High school teachers trust there metrics enough to fail students and deny them a high school diploma. I trust my metrics enough to fail students every semester, sometimes causing them to be kicked out of the university. Even after over 30 years, I still remember the first student I ever failed for a course. I spent a long night thinking about the disservice I would do her if I failed her for the class and the disservice I would do her if I passed her for the class. In the end, I decided I would do her a greater disservice by passing her, pretending that she had learned some material from the class and pretending that she should be giving the university her tuition money because of the knowledge she was gaining. It seemed the moral thing to do.

    4. Tell me, O Great and All Knowing Teaching Economist, how do you know which students aren't going to make it? Or should we now address you as the Oracle of Delphi?

    5. The whole point is that the businessman/president was only worried about making the school's retention rates look good, not about the welfare of the students.

  3. TE:
    Interesting theory that applies at exactly NONE of the Ivy League schools.
    Parents fight for continued opportunity for their children for many many reasons.
    The truth is... In the upper class it's all about getting a second, third, fourth, gazillionth chance.
    As iit should be. But that should be true for all kids. Instead- for the rest of us it's "pull yourself up by your bootstraps" one mis-step amd you're out. The consequences for mistakes and Late bloomers is life-determining by your theories. Not so for the upper class. If you can't see that you are either willfully blind or working an agenda.

    1. FM,

      I have only taught a handful of students whom I know were admitted to elite institutions but decided to attend my state university instead (Chicago, MIT, Swarthmore, and Dartmouth come to mind). None had any trouble graduating from my institution despite our overall 80% retention rate and 65% six year graduation rate, all had GPA's north of 3.9 (on a 4.0 scale of course) and multiple majors. Several won national fellowships. Perhaps one of the reasons the tiny percentage of students admitted to Ivy League schools do well academically is because they are very strong academically. Not completely uniformly so, of course, because football players who apply are only competing against other football players, not all other applicants (If you want a football team you must admit enough high school football players. I have heard a dean at Stanford complain about the number of admission slots that must be reserved for high school athletes to keep Stanford's 36 varsity teams fully stocked), but I have little doubt that any student admitted to an elite college or university would have little trouble graduating from my institution in four years.

      My point is that it is not obviously immoral to wait until late bloomers have actually bloomed to start charging them tuition. In fact, to take their money before they have bloomed seems to be the immoral practice.

  4. Well, that purge didn't last long. The professors are back, and it is only a matter of time until Mr. Newman is gone as president of the college. Look who turned out to be the bunny. He had no idea what he was doing. Gross incompetence. Also, the survey they used violated federal law. A level of incompetence rarely seen.