Leadership & Governance

Simon Newman Resigns as President of Mount St. Mary’s

March 01, 2016

The Mountain Echo
Simon P. Newman resigned on Monday night, effective immediately. His departure caps a weeks-long furor that drew national attention to the Roman Catholic institution in rural Maryland.
Months after he incited a bitter backlash by comparing struggling students to bunnies that needed to be drowned, Simon P. Newman resigned late Monday, effective immediately, as president of Mount St. Mary’s University, in Maryland.

Mr. Newman, a former private-equity chief executive, had come under increasing pressure to step down after his decision to fire two professors — one with tenure — and to demote the provost. All had questioned his controversial freshman-retention plan, which called for encouraging at-risk freshmen who didn’t respond well to advising to drop out during the first weeks of the semester. He presented it as a win-win for students, who could get a tuition refund, and the university, which wouldn’t have those dropouts count against its retention rate.

Mr. Newman — who has since apologized for his blunt language — had said that professors who objected to his plan should stop treating students as cuddly bunnies and drown them instead. That conversation, which a faculty member leaked to the student newspaper, The Mountain Echo, brought a deluge of unwanted national attention to the Roman Catholic university in rural Emmitsburg, Md.

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 a written statement released by the university on Monday evening, Mr. Newman said the publicity over his leadership had "become too great of a distraction to our mission of educating students. It was a difficult decision, but I believe it is the right course of action for the Mount at this time."

The statement also announced that the Board of Trustees had named the university’s business dean, Karl Einolf, as acting president.

Shortly after the announcement, the former provost, David B. Rehm, welcomed that choice.

"Dr. Einolf has the respect of a broad array of community members, and he brings deep understanding of the workings of the university to his new position," Mr. Rehm wrote in an email to The Chronicle. "He will be a force for healing and reconciliation."

Mr. Rehm retained his faculty position as a professor of philosophy after stepping down as provost.

It was unclear on Monday whether he and other administrators who were demoted during Mr. Newman’s presidency would be reinstated to their administrative posts.

Widespread Outrage

In the university’s statement, Mr. Newman said he cared deeply about Mount St. Mary's.

"I am proud of what I have been able to achieve in a relatively short time, particularly in helping the university chart a clear course toward a bright future," he said.

Many employees and alumni, however, expressed concern that, as the crisis deepened, the university was instead hurtling toward disaster.

Mr. Newman’s actions attracted widespread condemnation, from the American Association of University Professors, the American Philosophical Association, and others, including thousands of academics who signed a statement protesting the firings of the two professors.

The university's efforts to minimize the damage did little to appease critics. Alumni, professional organizations, and scholars across the country condemned the professors' firings.
Last week the university received a more ominous threat when its accreditor, the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, sent a letter giving it until March 15 to answer questions about how recent developments might have affected its compliance with four of the commission’s key standards and requirements.

The university’s efforts to minimize the damage did little to appease critics.

Mr. Newman offered to reinstate the two professors who had been fired — Ed Egan, adviser to the campus newspaper, and Thane M. Naberhaus, a tenured associate professor of philosophy.

Nevertheless, faculty members voted 87 to 3 to ask Mr. Newman to resign by February 15. Still, he had plenty of supporters.

A few days after the faculty vote, the university’s student government released the results of a poll that showed strong student support for Mr. Newman’s leadership.

Interviewed later, students said they appreciated the president’s introduction of degrees like cybersecurity that they considered marketable, changes he had suggested in the core curriculum, and the opening of a Starbucks on the campus.

Mr. Newman thanked them by handing out doughnuts at a rally they staged for him.

Some, however, questioned how comfortable students were in responding to a poll that required their student identification numbers, given the administration’s history of monitoring employee emails and punishing those seen as disloyal.

In a video posted on YouTube last month, one student, Grace Wagler, said that despite the lopsided vote, many students, like herself, did not support the president. Some, she said, worried that honest answers could cost them their scholarships.

As the controversy deepened, Mr. Newman continued to make his case in a letter to the student newspaper. He responded to the faculty vote by declaring that he would stay on.

As the tension on the campus rose, the board apologized for "a breakdown in compassionate communication" and announced a review of the controversy.

Board members interviewed hundreds of students, faculty and staff members, and administrators over the past few weeks, and met all day on Monday to go over their findings.

Time to Heal

In the statement released on Monday, the board’s chairman, John E. Coyne III, said it was "grateful to President Newman for his many accomplishments over the past year, including strengthening the university’s finances, developing a comprehensive strategic plan for our future, and bringing many new ideas to campus that have benefited the entire Mount community. We thank him for his service."

Asked whether the president had received any kind of financial compensation as part of his resignation agreement, a campus spokesman said he could not comment on personnel matters.

Faculty members and alumni interviewed on Monday said it would take time for the university to heal from the bruising battles of the past several months.

A former professor who helped organize protests said the outcome should serve as a signal 'of what can happen when scholars join together in solidarity for justice.'
It’s unclear what effect the turmoil might have had on applications to the university.

The announced departure of at least one high-level administrator is widely believed to be related to the turmoil.

Leona Sevick, the associate provost and an associate professor of English, announced last week that she would leave at the end of the semester to become provost of Bridgewater College, in Virginia.

Ms. Sevick had been among several professors who raised questions about Mr. Newman’s retention plan in an email exchange last summer. She was not available to comment on Monday night.

Faculty members and students — who have declined to publicly comment on the president, saying they feared retribution or had been told not to speak to the news media — did not respond to numerous emails and phone calls on Monday.

Shortly before the two faculty members were fired, the board’s chairman, Mr. Coyne, vowed to take action against anyone who was trying to undermine the president and force him out.

The only reaction from current faculty members on Monday night was a prepared statement that was released by the university’s media-relations office and was attributed to "the deans and department chairs of Mount St. Mary’s University." The statement thanked Mr. Newman, wished him well, and expressed gratitude to the trustees for their leadership.

Some former professors, however, welcomed the resignation. Among them was John Schwenkler, who was an assistant professor of philosophy at Mount St. Mary’s from 2010 to 2013 and helped organize opposition to the president on social media.

Mr. Schwenkler, who is now at Florida State University, said the statements of protest had "helped to make a national story out of what otherwise could have been just another incident of administrative overreach at a small college." He added: "I hope this is a clear signal to other academics — and administrators at other institutions — of what can happen when scholars join together in solidarity for justice."

Brian G. Henning, another former assistant professor of philosophy who now teaches at Gonzaga University, said a change was also needed in the leadership of the Mount St. Mary’s board, for having hired a president who "consistently demonstrates a failure to understand the values of American Catholic higher education" and who "treats students as mere numbers on a ledger."

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.

Nick DeSantis is an editor who supervises coverage of daily news across all areas of academe. Email him at nicholas.desantis@chronicle.com.