Between the kickboxing and slugfests of the political debates, it is healthy to switch channels to a university faculty fencing match, which can be just as dangerous, but sometimes deal with more lofty issues.
The stakes at Mount St. Mary’s University of Maryland in Emmitsburg, Md, the country’s second oldest Catholic university, with 2,240 students and 120 full time staff, are high: faculty fired, reputations spoiled, students threatened with pointless dismissal, the principles of Catholic education squandered, thousands of alumni outraged and now the school’s future up for grabs.
The university’s new president, Simon Newman, a business entrepreneur with no higher education administrative experience, decided in August that a large number of freshmen just recruited would drop out as the year went on. So he devised a questionnaire to measure their psychological balance—feel depressed? nobody likes you?—and eliminated 20-25 students before the end of September in order to diminish the total in the annual retention report.
His provost and several faculty members considered this unethical. The dean asked, “How can we in good conscience administer this?” Another emailed, “We cannot dismiss students because we think they won’t succeed.” When Dr. Greg Murry warned Newman that we “we might be kicking out some students who would make it.” The president replied, “There may be some collateral damage,” as if he were a battlefield commander willing to sacrifice some innocent lives. “This is hard for you,” he told the professor, “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.” His imagery of students bombed, drowned and shot in the head may reveal something of his personality.
Ultimately the president’s scheme was thwarted; but the student paper, The Mountain Echo, ran the story in early December. The Frederick News-Post, The Chronicle of Higher Education and the Washington Post have made it a national issue. President Newman struck back and removed David Rehm as provost; fired philosophy professor Thane Naberhaus for unspecified offenses; removed dean Joshua Hochschild, who had defended students against Newman’s slur; fired Ed Egan, director of the law program and adviser to the Echo; and appointed a new provost who had received a vote of no confidence in her previous job.
John E. Coyne III, chairman of the board of trustees, blames “a small group pf faculty and recent alumni” conspiring against Newman.
The larger public fought back; 7,000 academics (and counting)* signed a letter protesting the firings; 75 alumni shared their open letter to the campus community. A committee of three alumni wrote an open letter to the students in which they revealed a conversation in which the president had expressed contempt for the Mount’s Catholic identity and called for a radical de-emphasis in the liberal arts, for which the university was best known. Germain Grisez, renowned emeritus professor of Christian ethics, wrote to the trustees calling upon them to “terminate President Newman at once.” Why did he write? “Having taught others justice,” he said, “I must practice it.”
Newman may be gone soon. But what have we learned? I have known many university presidents, most of them Jesuits. Most have been visionaries, intelligent, broadly educated, imaginative, students of human nature. A few have been courageous and supported people like me in times of stress. A few were poor choices; the search committee had not done its homework.
Newman, with his admissions officer, did not how how to select student applicants with high motivation and some stamina. The search committee who hired him flunked. Just as teachers must love their students, so must the president at least respect his students and faculty. He is responsible for them all.
Catholic universities must scrupulously follow the shared American university norms for faculty and student rights, particularly in times of controversy. Whatever is accomplished in the classroom means little if in our dealings with one another we are not scrupulously fair, respectful and just.
*Correction (Feb. 11, 5:00 p.m.): An earlier version of this blog post misstated the number of signatories to a letter protesting the recent firings at Mount St. Mary's.