Two Mount St. Mary’s University professors were terminated on Monday, without severance. The professors’ termination comes on the heels of their public criticism of the new university president’s controversial plan to reduce the student dropout rate. This news follows the recent removal of celebrated provost David Rehm, who had similarly voiced concerns about the plan.
Simon Newman, a former private equity CEO who earned his MBA from Stanford, has made increasing the first-year retention rate at the private, liberal arts, Catholic university in Maryland a personal goal of his, but has gone about executing it in a way that has drawn much criticism and complaint from the campus community. Two professors who disagreed with Newman’s approach are now without jobs.
According to the Washington Post, about 20 to 25 percent of Mount St. Mary’s students will not finish their freshman year of college. This statistic has enormous consequences for both students and the university. Students who drop out will likely miss out on ever completing their degree, and dropping out can cause feelings of failure and depression. The university doesn’t benefit from this statistic either. Since many prospective students and parents look at first-year retention statistics in order to gauge the effectiveness of a university, a high dropout rate can make a university seem less desirable.
Newman understood this problem when he took over the university last year. However, instead of working to help students adjust to college and develop plans to complete their degree, he has decided to take the opposite approach.
Several months ago, Newman asked professors for a list of students unlikely to succeed in college, and told college administrators to have “a frank discussion” with them about the prospects of finishing their degrees. Students in that group who dropped out before a certain date could receive a refund on their tuition. Newman has reportedly shown little, if any, sympathy for struggling Mount St. Mary’s students, as evidenced by his remarks to skeptical colleagues 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.”
Understandably, the plan to essentially encourage students to drop out for the purpose of making the university’s numbers look good generated discontent among faculty members, several of whom voiced concerns about the president’s ideas. One of the professors is the adviser of the student newspaper, the Mountain Echo, which was responsible for reporting the “cuddly bunnies” remark. With the removal of the provost and the termination of two professors, all of whom opposed the president’s plan, the president is effectively attempting to silence his opposition.
The university maintains that the “personnel matters” are unrelated to the president’s agenda. According to the Washington Post, a spokesperson for the university wrote in an email Tuesday evening that, “Mount St. Mary’s University policy is to keep all personnel matters confidential. However, in light of disclosures by terminated faculty member Thane Naberhaus, we will confirm that Mr. Naberhaus was terminated because his actions violated multiple university policies and the University’s standards of ethical conduct. He was not terminated for expressing differing views from those of the Administration. To have done so would have been contrary to the academic and educational environment that has always characterized Mount St. Mary’s University.”
Members of the campus community and the general public aren’t buying it. A petition to have the professors reinstated is circulating online and has already been digitally signed by more than 2,400 people. Numerous letters by alumni have been sent to the administration, some of them open to the community and highly critical of what they say is the president’s attempt to stifle “the free exchange of ideas that are vital to an academic institution and the students who attend.” The American Association of University Professors released a statement saying, “Faculty are entitled to a hearing before an elected faculty body prior to dismissal. In such a hearing, the administration must demonstrate that adequate cause for dismissal exists. Coming, as it did, on the heels of public criticism of President Newman, the dismissal raises the question whether it was in response to this criticism.” The AAUP also affirmed the right of college professors to criticize institutional policy, which it claims is an “essential component of academic freedom.”
Alumni have also been critical of the CEO-turned-college-president’s approach to university governance, which they say is more akin to the boardroom than the classroom. Alumnus John Singleton, who earned his bachelor’s and MBA from Mount St. Mary’s, expressed his frustration with the president, saying, “It’s not about raiding and restructuring… An atmosphere of hostile takeover does nothing for our students at Mount St. Mary’s University.”
— Bryan Dewan is an intern for Think Progress