Mount St. Mary's board apologizes, continues support for president

Christopher Gunty

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The board of trustees of Mount St. Mary's University in Emmitsburg issued an apology to the university community after a controversy erupted over a discussion about student retention that university president Simon Newman had with some faculty members.

In the aftermath, two faculty members were dismissed but quickly reinstated.

After a board meeting Feb. 15, the university released a statement from the board expressing "its apology to the entire community over the breakdown in compassionate communication and collaboration that we have all witnessed in the past few weeks."

"As with many of you, the board is very concerned about what is taking place," it said. "The trustees are seeking to gather all of the necessary information so that they may better guide the university's path forward."

The controversy at Mount St. Mary's in recent weeks made national headlines, but it began last fall. After Newman was installed during the summer, he made steps to address areas of concern at the university, which is in the Baltimore Archdiocese. It is about 60 miles northwest of Baltimore, near the Maryland-Pennsylvania border.

It has 1,810 undergraduates and 495 graduate students, according to the archdiocese's 2016 Catholic directory.

In October, the university announced changes to employee health benefits and cuts in retirement benefits. The university president also worked with faculty and staff members to identify 20 to 25 freshman students who were not likely to succeed at the school, so that they could be dismissed before they paid a lot of tuition or incurred significant student debt.

Critics charged that the move also would improve the school's posted retention rate, if the students were dismissed before an important deadline for reporting enrollment statistics. Newman fired two faculty members, since reinstated, who had opposed his plan.

In the statement released by the university, the board of trustees noted the importance and urgency of the current situation and said the trustees want to "take the time to listen, and to hear from all of the constituencies involved in order to make the best informed decisions. Several trustees will be on campus this week and next, to listen and learn."

The statement said the board expects to take two weeks to gather information and asked for patience and prayers during the process. The board promised to keep the community informed and offered an email address for members of the community to offer suggestions on healing the university.

Last fall, when Newman announced his plans, The Mountain Echo student newspaper reported that Greg Murry, director of the Veritas Symposium at Mount St. Mary's was part of a small group of faculty discussing the changes with Newman. According to Murry, Newman was reported as having said during the course of the conversation: "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."

The Echo said another faculty member present confirmed the conversation.

As the fallout from the situation expanded, two faculty members were dismissed and a professor was removed as provost, though he kept his teaching position.

According to a Feb.12 statement the university, Newman announced that day at a faculty meeting that the two faculty members were reinstated immediately.

Thane Naberhaus, a philosophy professor, and Edward Egan, faculty adviser to The Mountain Echo student newspaper, were reinstated as employees of the university as a first step of reconciliation and healing in the season of Lent and the Year of Mercy, according to the university release.

"We will work to implement the initiatives we agree are important for our students' future and our university's future. And most importantly eliminate the feelings of fear and injustice that any may be harboring, work through our misunderstandings, and make a new beginning as a unified team. You have my solemn commitment to work together to restore our relationship and our school," Newman said.

Media reports seemed to indicate widespread dissatisfaction with Newman, and a letter from faculty called for him to resign. On Feb. 11 Christian Kendzierski, a university spokesman, told the Catholic Review, Baltimore's archdiocesan newspaper: "On campus, our students are fine; they're going to class."

He admitted that there was concern that the situation would affect fundraising especially among alumni.

He noted that the university was doing something transformative under the new president. "With that comes resistance," Kendzierski said.

The board had issued a message to the Mount St. Mary's community Jan. 22 addressing the situation and noting that the board of trustees passed a unanimous resolution Jan. 10 of full confidence in Newman.

"The board is also continuously being shown that the president enjoys the widespread support of the faculty, student body and broader university community," said the Jan. 22 message from John Coyne, board chairman.

"We are moving a 200-plus-year-old institution into a new era with a dynamic and bright future. In higher education change is hard. We remain committed to the guiding principles that we have been known for, to our Catholic identity and placing the student at the center of our universe," Coyne's message said.

"President Newman is a transformational leader and our future direction is incredibly exciting."

Kendzierski confirmed Feb. 16 that the board remains supportive of Newman as president.

On Feb. 14, the university's student government association released the results of a survey it took the previous week on support for Newman. More than 60 percent of the 1,531 students polled responded, with 75.6 percent in favor of Newman and 24.4 percent not in favor of his leadership.

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