An Appalling Breach of Faith at Mount St. Mary's


“You just have to drown the bunnies,” said Simon Newman, president of Mount St. Mary’s U., referring to struggling freshmen. His words, reported by the student newspaper, have reverberated far beyond the Maryland campus.
February 10, 2016

In his remarks to Congress in September, Pope Francis said, "We need to avoid a common temptation nowadays: to discard whatever proves troublesome." He was referring to the refugee crisis, but he may as well have been speaking about the president and trustees of Mount St. Mary’s University of Maryland. President Simon Newman, apparently backed fully by his trustees, has aggressively come out in favor of ridding his campus of troublesome people, namely, freshmen who threaten retention metrics ("drown the bunnies," "put a Glock to their heads") and the colleagues who spoke out against his preposterous retention plan.

David B. Rehm was removed as provost after questioning Newman’s plan. Worse, Newman fired and banned from the campus Thane M. Naberhaus, a tenured associate professor of philosophy, and Ed Egan, adviser to the campus newspaper, The Mountain Echo, for actions Newman deemed disloyal to the university.

Uproar at Mount St. Mary's

A controversial freshman-retention plan at Mount St. Mary's University of Maryland, and the way the institution handled the ensuing criticism, cast the small Roman Catholic campus and its president, Simon P. Newman, in a harsh light. Mr. Newman resigned after weeks of controversy, having drawn the ire of his own faculty and many others in higher education. Read full Chronicle coverage, along with commentaries, in these articles.

President 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. The second oldest Catholic university in the nation, Mount St. Mary’s is hailed by the Cardinal Newman Society (no known relation to Simon Newman) as one of the nation’s top Catholic colleges. But President Newman’s actions raise serious questions about his stewardship of this venerable institution.

What makes a university Catholic? Notwithstanding the narrow metrics preferred by the Cardinal Newman Society (percentage of Catholic students and faculty, number of days of Mass and confession on campus, presence of single-sex dorms), the real definition of Catholic mission in the modern world arises in Ex corde Ecclesiae, the 1990 Vatican document on Catholic higher education. Among many rich and complex characteristics of Catholic institutions, Ex corde expects that a Catholic university has "a common dedication to the truth, a common vision of the dignity of the human person" and that the institution is "animated by a spirit of freedom and charity; it is characterized by mutual respect, sincere dialogue, and protection of the rights of individuals."

Being Catholic does not shroud a university in some invisible cloak of protection against the customary exercise of faculty rights and academic freedom, including the right to be critical of the administration. I suspect that Ex corde’s author, Pope John Paul II, a former university professor himself, would find the wanton firing of dissenting academic colleagues to be deeply troubling at the very least. Another professor-turned-pontiff, Pope Benedict XVI, speaking to Catholic presidents at a meeting at Catholic University in 2008, reaffirmed the "great value of academic freedom."

While the church itself does impose some doctrinal constraints on the exercise of academic freedom, the fence is laid around issues of actual dogma, not the dogmatic imposition of presidential mandates designed to improve metrics at the expense of fragile freshmen.

President Newman’s cynical plan to drop struggling freshmen from the enrollment rolls prior to the mandatory first semester report to the U.S. Department of Education 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 students culled through a cruel and deceptive survey administered at a time when first-year students are most vulnerable is the antithesis of true Catholic social justice.

Ex corde expects that "the Christian spirit of service to others for the promotion of social justice is of particular importance for each Catholic University." It proceeds to say that every Catholic university "will be capable of searching for ways to make university education accessible to all those who are able to benefit from it, especially the poor or members of minority groups who customarily have been deprived of it."

The students most likely to suffer from President Newman’s "drown the bunnies" plan are those who probably have not had the best advantages in their prior education — low-income students, students of color from historically marginalized communities, first-generation students whose families have no tradition of navigating the wilds and wiles of higher education’s vast bureaucracy. Those students do pose considerable risks to rankings that are predicated on only the most traditional metrics of wealth and family stability. Far from trying to find ways to exclude such students, we Catholic colleges and universities must take the risk of embracing them and putting in place the supports that will ensure their success.

A true sense of Catholic mission calls us to exalt mission over metrics.

In my 27 years as Trinity’s president, I have had my fair share of vociferous critics. Recentering our historic institutional mission to serve the most marginalized students in Washington, D.C., did not occur in silence. A president who does not hear a lot of noise is not doing the job; argumentation is what we do in higher education. Far from being disloyal, the opposition is, most often, deeply loyal and profoundly concerned in a genuine way. While we often disagree about tactics, we almost never disagree about the ultimate goal of serving our students and institution very well.

Mount St. Mary’s has a wonderful heritage and should have a vibrant future. But no relatively small private college today can afford an ugly public scandal over breaches of trust, disrespect for students, and trampling of fundamental rights of the people who must live the mission every single day. 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. 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.

Patricia McGuire is president of Trinity Washington University.