A plan advanced by the president of Mount St. Mary’s University in Maryland to identify and cull underperforming freshmen has erupted into a national scandal inspiring a petition drive to reinstate two fired professors and, most recently, a withering, public critique by the head of another nearby Catholic college.
The controversy originated when Simon Newman, appointed president of Mount St. Mary’s in 2015, advanced the plan to improve the university’s retention rate by identifying struggling students within weeks of arrival on campus and encouraging them to leave.
Newman, in a conversation with professors, said that “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,” an apparent reference to a popular Austrian-made pistol. The language was first reported in a special edition of the campus newspaper, The Mountain Echo. The news broke beyond the campus when The Washington Post, in a Jan. 19 story, reported on the controversy. The Post said it had independently confirmed the quotes attributed to Newman.
In early February, several national and local press outlets reported the firings, without severance, of law professor Edward Egan, a former trustee who had been advisor to The Mountain Echo, and Thad Naberhaus, a tenured professor of philosophy and former director of the university’s honors program, who had raised objections to the plan. The president also requested and received the resignation of David Rehm as provost. Rehm, who also had raised questions about Newman’s plan, remains on the faculty.
Newman publicly apologized for his “insensitive” words but also told the Post that the student newspaper had distorted his proposal. His language and firing of the professors ignited a national backlash and more than 6,000, including professors from colleges and universities across the country, signed onto an internet petition seeking reinstatement of the fired faculty members.
The most detailed critique to date, however, came from Patricia McGuire, president of Trinity Washington University, some 40 miles to the south of Mount St. Mary’s, in the District of Columbia. In a piece published by the Chronicle of Higher Education, under the headline, “An Appalling Breach of Faith at Mount St. Mary’s,” McGuire said that Newman’s “ill-considered words about students and callous actions toward dissenting colleagues betray the Mount’s two centuries of Roman Catholic mission as well as the essential value of academic freedom in higher education.” She added that his actions “raise serious questions about his stewardship of this venerable institution.”
McGuire, who has been unusually outspoken on other issues in higher education said in an interview Thursday that she doesn’t honor the “conspiracy of silence” that is often the rule in the academy. “I feel there are times when we have to call each other out.”
She described Newman’s actions as an affront to academic freedom and she also criticized his “cynical plan” to drop struggling freshmen before the “mandatory first semester report to the U.S. Department of Education,” saying the strategy “exalts metrics over mission. A higher first-year retention rate has an impact on the completion rates reported in the U.S. News & World Report’s ‘Best Colleges’ rankings as well as the Department of Education’s College Scorecard.
“Gaming the system by dismissing” the most vulnerable students “is the antithesis of true Catholic social justice,” she wrote. She added that Newman’s actions, resulting in scandal, would have an opposite effect than intended. “President Newman’s ill-tempered actions debilitate, rather than enhance, the prospects for moving the university forward.
“Nobody will remember whether the Mount’s first-year retention rate rises or falls a few points in any given year,” she concluded. “But the story of the breach of faith in Newman’s firing of faculty members who came to the defense of the ‘drowning bunnies’ will live on for years to come.”
In a Feb. 10 letter to parents of St. Mary’s students, Newman addressed the firings, saying the two “violated a number of our university policies and our code of ethics.” He said his administration ”will take the high road” and had chosen “not to respond more forcefully with information about the specifics of their conduct which we have available to us.”
It is critical, he said, “that you know that we would never undertake actions like that unless the conduct in question warranted it. You may see other versions of events, but we have chosen to restore our focus on educating your students rather than explaining the damaging actions of a few individuals.”
Such a pointed critique of one Catholic college president by another is rare, said Paula Moore, associate vice president for communications of the Washington-based Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities. Both institutions are members of the association, which has not addressed the controversy. Moore said the association’s main purpose is to “help member institutions develop and enhance Catholic identity.”
Newman, as president of the university, also presides over St. Mary’s Seminary. Chancellor of the seminary is Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore. A call seeking comment from the archdiocesan spokesman was not returned.