Turmoil Continues at a Maryland Campus With a Provost’s Resignation and Faculty Firings

February 09, 2016

Sam Yu, The Frederick News-Post
Simon P. Newman is president of Mount St. Mary’s U., in Maryland. The dispute over a retention plan he pushed has now sparked a round of casualties. The provost, who was asked to step down, remains on the faculty, but two other professors were fired.
Heads have been rolling at Mount St. Mary’s University of Maryland in the aftermath of a bitter dispute over the president’s retention plan that involved, by some accounts, treating struggling freshmen as bunnies that needed to be drowned.

The provost and at least two faculty members are the latest casualties.

On Friday the president, Simon P. Newman, sent an email to faculty members saying he had asked for, and received, the resignation of the university’s provost, David B. Rehm.

Mr. Rehm, who will retain his faculty position as a professor of philosophy, had raised concerns about Mr. Newman’s plan to use a freshman survey to help weed out students who, by leaving in late September, could improve the Roman Catholic institution’s retention numbers. Mr. Newman has said he wanted to prevent at-risk students from making an expensive mistake.

Mr. Newman, a private-equity chief executive and entrepreneur who became president of Mount St. Mary’s last year, wrote that it is "common practice" for a new president to change some senior leaders. "It’s all a part of moving forward, bringing in new ideas, and continuously improving," he wrote.

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.

Then, on Monday, word came that at least two faculty members had also been fired.

Ed Egan, director of the university’s prelaw program and adviser to the campus newspaper, The Mountain Echo, was one. The newspaper broke the story about the opposition to the president’s retention plan.

Ryan Golden, a senior who is the newspaper’s managing editor, said in an interview on Monday that staff members at the Echo were "appalled" by the decision to fire Mr. Egan.

"He supported us through thick and thin, always making sure we were accurate, thorough, and fair," he said.

The president announced two new advisers for the student-run paper; Pratibha Kumar, an assistant professor of communication, and Michael Hillman, executive editor of the Emmitsburg News-Journal.

The second faculty member to be fired on Monday was Thane M. Naberhaus, a tenured associate professor of philosophy.

Escorted Off the Campus

A scan of the letter informing Thane M. Naberhaus that he was fired from his post as a tenured associate professor of philosophy and banned from the campus.
Mr. Naberhaus, who has publicly criticized the administration but doesn’t consider himself a "rabble rouser," said in an interview on Monday night that a campus security officer had delivered a letter signed by the president, confiscated his computer, and escorted him to his car.

The letter, a copy of which The Chronicle obtained, said that Mr. Naberhaus owed "a duty of loyalty" to the university and that his recent, unspecified actions violated that duty and justified his firing.

"Further, because of your conduct and its impact on the university, you have been designated persona non grata," the letter continued. "As such, you are not welcome to visit the university’s campus or to attend any university activities or sporting events on the university’s property. Failure to comply with this directive will result in legal proceedings."

The letter, which Mr. Naberhaus believes is identical to the one Mr. Egan received, accused him of causing "considerable damage" to the university and its reputation. It also warned him not to delete any electronic documents or communications on his personal computer that relate to the university, and said the university reserved the right to take legal action against him. Mr. Naberhaus, in turn, is considering his legal options.

"I raised some concerns at faculty meetings and posted a few articles online, but I didn’t realize that was illegal," he said.

A campus spokesman, Christian A. Kendzierski, confirmed that Mr. Naberhaus and Mr. Egan were no longer employed by the university, but he declined to comment further.

Their profile pages had been scrubbed from the university’s website by Monday afternoon.

A third faculty member may also face termination. Gregory W. Murry, an assistant professor of history, received an email similar to the one the two fired professors received, calling him in for a meeting, but it arrived after he had returned home, he wrote in an email to The Chronicle on Monday evening.

"I have not been fired officially, but I have been locked out of my email account," he wrote. "I am not sure if that meeting has been rescheduled because (of course) I am locked out of my email."

Mr. Rehm and Mr. Egan did not respond to emails or phone calls.

Mr. Kendzierski said late Monday that Mr. Murry was still employed.

Mr. Murry was the faculty member who told the student newspaper about the now-infamous "drown the bunnies" analogy. He oversees a freshman orientation program during which the survey was given for the first time this past fall. Mr. Murry, who objected to how the survey was to be used, told the Echo the president had told him, "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."

That comment made national newspaper headlines, creating a public-relations disaster for the university.

Mr. Newman didn’t deny making the comment but said it had been taken out of context and didn’t reflect the goals of his plan, which were to identify struggling students early and get them help. Those who clearly couldn’t make it would be better off cut loose before they incurred student-loan debt, he reasoned.

A Signal From the Board

The personnel moves weren’t entirely unexpected. The Board of Trustees fired a warning shot last month, when the board’s chair, John E. Coyne III, said in an online statement that the trustees had "found incontrovertible evidence of the existence of an organized, small group of faculty and recent alums working to undermine and ultimately cause the exit of President Newman." He added that the university would "hold those individuals accountable for these actions."

In an earlier letter to the campus newspaper, the board chair accused the student journalists of giving readers "a grossly inaccurate impression" of the university’s retention plans. Mr. Coyne did not respond to a request for comment on Monday.

In his letter to faculty members on Friday, Mr. Newman announced the appointment of an interim provost, Jennie C. Hunter-Cevera, a former president of the University of Maryland Biotechnology Institute. She served, most recently, as the State of Maryland’s acting secretary of higher education. The Baltimore Sun reported that her nomination to that post had been held up in part because of concerns faculty members raised about her leadership at the biotechnology institute.

Ms. Hunter-Cevera was not immediately available to comment.

The Mount St. Mary’s firings happened while an online petition was circulating, calling on the university to pledge that it wouldn’t retaliate against students or employees who oppose Mr. Newman’s retention plan. The petition, filed by Ken Buckler, a 2006 graduate, also called for a commitment "that no student shall be dismissed from the college in any effort to increase retention numbers."

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