Administration

Fallout at Mount St. Mary's Spreads as Scholars Protest Firings

February 10, 2016

Maggie Deegan
Mount St. Mary's U., a Roman Catholic institution in Maryland, demoted its provost and fired two professors this week. Those actions have drawn widespread rebukes, from the American Association of University Professors, free-speech groups, and professors at other universities, among others.
The controversy over a freshman-retention plan that has roiled the campus of Mount St. Mary's University of Maryland reached new heights on Tuesday, as scholars and free-speech advocates joined a growing coalition of voices condemning the actions of the university's president, Simon P. Newman.

The turmoil over Mr. Newman's retention plan — and the sudden demotion of the provost and dismissal of two other faculty members this week — has raised questions about the consequences that the university and its president could face.

On Monday the campus newspaper’s adviser, Ed Egan, who also directed the university’s prelaw program, was fired, effective immediately, and banned from the campus. That evening the university sent a letter to students announcing that two new advisers — an assistant professor of communication and the editor of a local community newspaper — were taking over.

Mr. Newman also fired Thane M. Naberhaus, a tenured professor of philosophy, on Monday. Mr. Naberhaus’s termination letter alleged that his “recent actions” had violated “a duty of loyalty” 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.

In the hours since the firings, a chill has swept across academic and student-press circles. The American Association of University Professors sent a letter to Mr. Newman on Tuesday that sharply criticized his dismissal of a tenured professor without a hearing. By Tuesday evening more than 3,000 scholars, administrators, and graduate students had signed a statement condemning the university’s actions. The Student Press Law Center and the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education have also weighed in.

A third faculty member who thought he faced imminent dismissal had not been fired as of Tuesday afternoon. Gregory W. Murry, an assistant professor of history who spoke at length with the student journalists for their original article about the retention plan, received an email similar to the one sent to the two fired professors on Monday, and was locked out of his university email account.

But Christian Kendzierski, a spokesman for the university, said Mr. Murry was still employed by Mount St. Mary’s. He wouldn’t say whether Mr. Murry’s job was safe for the time being. Mr. Newman was not made available for comment.

Interviewed on Tuesday, Mr. Egan said he could only assume that he had been fired in retaliation for advising the student newspaper during a time that it was scrutinizing the president’s actions and taking heat for it.

He said high-level administrators had called him in three times before his firing to question him about coverage in the student-run paper that the administration was unhappy with, including an article in November about the university’s controversial decision to cut retiree health benefits.

Stunned by his firing, Ed Egan visited a shrine where former professors who inspired him are buried. 'I'm not going to be allowed to come back here,' he thought.
Despite the trustees’ insistence that the student reporters had damaged the university’s reputation with “irresponsible” reporting, Mr. Egan said the students had done a careful and “outstanding” job.

Being told he was disloyal to the university “hurt me very deeply,” Mr. Egan said. “I’ve been coming here all my life. My father graduated from Mount St. Mary’s.” He followed in his father’s footsteps, graduating from Mount St. Mary’s in 1977 and serving as editor of the student newspaper. He has been teaching law there since 2009 and has served as a trustee.

That connection to the university came to a screeching halt on Monday, when he was handed a dismissal letter calling him a “persona non grata” for unspecified acts of disloyalty and banning him from the campus. Mr. Egan was escorted by a security officer to his office, then to his car.

Stunned, he drove to a mountain shrine and cemetery where former Mount St. Mary’s employees are among those buried. “I went and visited some graves of former professors of mine who inspired me,” Mr. Egan said. “It’s a place of reflection and inspiration I frequently visit, and I thought, ‘I’m not going to be allowed to come back here.’”

“I love this institution, and I love our students,” he added. “Sometimes that requires you to say things or allow other people to say things that are hard to hear.”

Outrage Over Firings

Support for the fired professors poured in from all over the country. The widely circulated statement of protest, which calls for Mount St. Mary’s to immediately reinstate Mr. Naberhaus and Mr. Egan, was written by John L. Schwenkler, a former assistant professor of philosophy at Mount St. Mary’s. In an interview, Mr. Schwenkler — now an assistant professor at Florida State University — said he began circulating it on Tuesday morning “out of concerns for friends and colleagues whose jobs are in jeopardy.”

Among the signers are several other professors who recently taught at Mount St. Mary’s. To Brian G. Henning, a professor of philosophy and environmental studies at Gonzaga University, Mr. Newman’s actions validate his belief that the university “is being systematically run into the ground by a corporate president and board who don’t understand the nature of the Catholic higher-education tradition.”

The dismissal of Mr. Naberhaus for alleged disloyalty came as a shock, Mr. Schwenkler said. At a Roman Catholic institution like Mount St. Mary’s, he said, it’s understandable that the administration would retain the ability to dismiss a tenured professor for an egregious violation of the university’s faith-driven mission. When administrators have that discretion, however, “faculty governance can be routed around easily,” he said.

In this case, Mr. Schwenkler said, “the faculty have a responsibility to stand up and push back.” He acknowledged the fear among many professors about losing their jobs. But, he said, “the way to keep that from happening is by speaking out in a strong and unified way, because you can’t fire all of them.”

The firings also drew a rebuke from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, the free-speech group known as FIRE. “While Mount St. Mary’s is a private, Catholic institution, it makes promises of free speech and academic freedom to its community that it is morally and legally obligated to uphold,” the group wrote in a prepared statement on Tuesday.

“Speaking freely is a dangerous proposition at the Mount if it is willing to go this far to silence its critics,” said Peter Bonilla, director of FIRE’s Individual Rights Defense Program.

Effects on Students

Just how much free speech will be allowed at the student newspaper remains to be seen. The university said the new advisers will provide the student journalists with “the expert guidance necessary to enable it to gain a deeper understanding of best practices in news gathering and reporting in addition to a fuller picture of the media business itself.” The letter was signed by Pauline A. Engelstatter, vice president for university affairs and recording secretary to the Board of Trustees.

Among those watching the developments closely is Frank D. LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center.

“If the implication of that letter is that publishing an unflattering article about the president violates the standards of journalism, the college has a lot to learn about journalism,” he said in an interview on Tuesday. “It has no idea of the role of the newspaper as a community watchdog.” When universities support a campus newspaper financially, as Mount St. Mary’s does, “there’s a widespread misunderstanding that they’re paying for favorable public relations,” Mr. LoMonte said. “That’s not the newspaper’s role.”

As for Mr. Egan’s firing, “it’s hard to believe that this is anything but retaliation” for the newspaper’s airing of criticism of the president, he said. “It can’t help but inhibit their reporting in the future.”

Also uncertain is how the weeks of controversy might affect student recruiting at Mount St. Mary’s. Carl Ahlgren, director of college counseling at the Gilman School, a private boys’ preparatory school in Maryland, said he didn’t think many high-school counselors would be hearing questions from parents and students about the recent turmoil. He guesses that “they will instead come to their own firm conclusions.”

The university has been fielding calls from concerned parents. Molly Graham, whose son is a freshman, called the university after reading about how the president had described struggling students. (In what the board has acknowledged as an “unfortunate metaphor,” Mr. Newman has been quoted as having told Mr. Murry: “Instead of thinking of students as cuddly bunnies, you just have to drown the bunnies … put a Glock to their heads.”)

Ms. Graham said she had been told that the comment was taken out of context and that the president was committed to doing everything possible to help students succeed. She wasn’t convinced.

“How, at a time when young people are being gunned down on campuses, does a president think it’s OK in any context to talk about putting a Glock to a student’s head?” she asked during an interview on Tuesday. “I don’t want him coming anywhere near my child.”

After getting passed around to a few offices, she left a message for the president to call. “I doubt he will,” she said, “but it’s time he answered some hard questions from parents directly.”

Sarah Brown writes about a range of higher-education topics, including sexual assault, race on campus, and Greek life. Follow her on Twitter @Brown_e_Points, or email her at sarah.brown@chronicle.com.

Katherine Mangan writes about community colleges, completion efforts, and job training, as well as other topics in daily news. Follow her on Twitter @KatherineMangan, or email her at katherine.mangan@chronicle.com.