Catholic college president resigns after freshman retention controversy

Higher Education
by Melinda Taylor
Posted 3/02/16, 03:40 pm

The president of the nation’s second-largest Catholic university resigned this week after ensnaring the school in controversy over his strategy to weed out struggling freshmen to improve the school’s retention rate and attempts to punish faculty who disagreed with him. His use of an unfortunate metaphor, describing those struggling students as bunnies needing to be drowned, didn’t help.

In his first year as president of Mount St. Mary’s University in Maryland, Simon Newman surveyed students to determine those likely to drop out, hoping to boost the school’s retention rate. He wanted to identify 20-25 students who would leave before the cutoff date for reporting the school’s enrollment to the federal government, according to emails leaked to the school’s student newspaper, The Mountain Echo.

Considering his strategy a win-win for students and the university—because students could receive tuition reimbursement and the school would look better in reviews from college ranking publications such as U.S. News & World Report—Newman described his plan to a faculty member who opposed the idea.

“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,” Newman said, according to the newspaper. He later admitted the remarks were inappropriate and apologized.

But he fired two professors—one who advised the Echo and another who was tenured—after they expressed disagreement with his plan. He also demoted the provost. Although he later reinstated the professors, the firings just added fuel to a fire that might have smoldered without bursting into flame, according to some.

“I think a lot of it could have been diminished if the university’s leadership and President Newman hadn’t reacted by going after the people who brought the story to light,” said Peter Bonilla, director of the individual rights defense program for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE). “If they had calmed down instead of doubled down, a lot of the controversy could have been avoided.”

Bonilla said Mount St. Mary’s and Newman should have paid more attention to the “first principles” of free speech and shared governance and that “the price for undermining them is high and should be high.”

As for the free speech exercised by the student newspaper in sharing the emails publicly, Bonilla said the students had taken proper steps to ensure their work was ethical and legal. The newspaper’s adviser, one of the professors Newman fired, also served as the school’s pre-law program director.

“There’s a lot of huffing and puffing by the university of violations against journalistic ethics but we haven’t seen evidence that the complaints were rooted in anything more than reporting that made the university look bad,” Bonilla said.

According to online publication Inside Higher Ed, The Middle States Commission on Higher Education sent a letter to Mount St. Mary’s, giving the school until March 15 to answer questions about the school’s compliance with four of the commission’s key standards and requirements.

Board of Trustees Chairman John Coyne announced Newman’s resignation Monday night and named Karl Einolf, dean of the college’s business school, as acting president.

Melinda Taylor

Melinda is a graduate of the World Journalism Institute's mid-career course.

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