Thirteen months ago, Simon Newman used a blunt metaphor to describe a freshman-retention plan that eventually spelled his doom as president of Mount St. Mary’s University, in Maryland: “You just have to drown the bunnies … put a Glock to their heads.” Mr. Newman resigned under mounting pressure in late February.
In August, Tim Trainor became interim leader of the Roman Catholic institution. Mr. Trainor, who had previously been dean and chief academic officer of the U.S. Military Academy, in West Point, N.Y., for six years, knew he needed to steady the ship, calm faculty fears, and rebuild trust.
In a conversation with The Chronicle on Monday, Mr. Trainor, a retired brigadier general in the U.S. Army, talked about how he has tried to do just that — and plan for the future. This year’s freshman class was substantially smaller than last year’s, a trend he attributes mostly to the controversy surrounding Mr. Newman. Mount St. Mary’s is not in dire straits financially, he said, but the institution does face the same revenue challenges as do many other small private colleges.
And while he said he could initially tell that the campus had gone through a tumultuous time, he now gets the sense that the apprehension among students, faculty and staff members, and alumni has mostly given way to optimism.
SARAH BROWN: Hello, I'm Sarah Brown, a staff reporter here at The Chronicle of Higher Education. I'm here today with Tim Trainor. He's the interim president of Mount St. Mary's University, in Maryland. President Trainor, welcome to The Chronicle. Thanks for coming here.
TIM TRAINOR: Well, thank you very much, Sarah. I appreciate you taking the time to let me chat with you.
SARAH BROWN: I wanted to start by talking about — you assumed this role in August as interim president at an institution that had been roiled by a lot of controversy earlier this year. You know, there were a lot of tensions between the university's leadership and quite a few faculty members and administrators. So when you came in, how did you sort of work to rebuild trust across the campus?
TIM TRAINOR: Well, my main focus has been what I would call an engage-and-learn process. I've been spending a lot of time engaging with various groups, students, faculty, staff, and with folks outside, stakeholders outside the institution, our alumni and other benefactors. And spending time in small forums and also large forums, town halls, focus groups, just learning from folks about what makes the Mount such a special place to be. Because it is a special place. Learning about what's so great about the place, also what we have to do to improve, and through that process, really seeking to build teams and to build their trust in me.
Doing that in formal, professional settings, but also spending a lot of time in social settings. Having very small groups of students, faculty, and staff over to my house to engage with my wife and I. And then, again, also with stakeholders outside the institution because I do also need to rebuild trust with the alumni and others. So I call it an engage-and-learn process, and through that I am figuring out, collaboratively, how do we best move the institution forward.
SARAH BROWN: So one of the issues that came up earlier this year was the issue of faculty rights. A lot of people were taken aback by Simon Newman's, the former president's, decision to fire a tenured faculty member without any due process, it seemed. And although Thane Naberhaus and Ed Egan were eventually reinstated to their positions, a lot of people, I think, were concerned that the act of dismissing them from the campus infringed on academic freedom. So you know, how have you calmed concerns among the faculty about those decisions?
TIM TRAINOR: Well, part of it has been through this engage-and-learn process, they get to know me, and I get to spend time with them. The other piece of that is really emphasizing our shared-governance processes, which are strong. It's also been one of my top three priorities to strengthen our governance. And one of the ways to do that is to really embrace our shared-governance process and use our folks. We have a Mount Council, which is our primary shared-governance body, and I've been very deliberate about making sure I engage them on helping to chart the way ahead. And so really I'd say it's through both the engage-and-learn process and building trust, but also emphasizing those strong shared-governance processes and helping to engage with people through those.
SARAH BROWN: So Mr. Newman's controversial comments, you know, you just have to drown the bunnies, put a Glock to their heads, concerned freshman retention. And although he used an unfortunate metaphor, I think most would agree with Mr. Newman's stated goals which were to identify struggling students early on and get them help. So how are you addressing that issue?
TIM TRAINOR: Well we've been working — and you're exactly right. We do have some concerns with retention. And we've put it in focus, and it started at the end of last year, we've created a Center for Student Engagement and Success to help be an umbrella organization. To help pull together all the many excellent student support services we have across the institution. And this has provided a way to bring them all together, provide a focus. And so what we've been doing is having faculty and staff engage with students early on, particularly the freshmen, early on, on how do they find the right help they need if they're struggling. But also to help learn about all the resources at their disposal.
During freshman orientation this year we put a big emphasis on making sure they understood the various organizations that can help them, particularly with time-management skills. But then getting our faculty, who have volunteered, really to enhance our advising and our mentoring of the students early on. We're seeing good success early on. At least, evidence after our midterm grades is that the number of students who are struggling after midterm grades is significantly less than the previous year. And so we think we're seeing an early success, but time will tell. And part of this whole process is also helping them see a four-year developmental plan. How do they – as they come in as freshmen, what's that four-year plan that will help them achieve their goals in higher education and beyond into the workplace. And so a lot of emphasis there, and this umbrella organization, of the student center for engagement and success, we're seeing early positive returns on that so far.
SARAH BROWN: So the size of Mount St. Mary's freshman class has dropped by nearly 20 percent since Fall 2012. So how do you plan to remedy that decline?
TIM TRAINOR: Through two prongs. Both retention and recruitment. And we just talked about the retention piece, what we're doing there, and I think we'll see positive returns on that. Other way is through recruiting. Yes, we took a hit in particularly this freshman year, but it had been declining. And so — previous, as you identified, what we're working on hard is our recruitment strategies in a number of ways. First of all, I'm getting personally involved a lot in recruiting. When we bring perspective students and their parents to the institution, to the beautiful campus we have, I'm taking the time to engage with them and to talk to them about the goodness of the Mount and how we can help those youngsters achieve their career goals through enrollment at the Mount. That's part of it.
The other part is we are purposely growing our Division I programs. We've seen success in the past through growth in certain Division I teams. And we're going to continue that growth because that is a good way to bring new students on. Students who retain very well. We've found that our student athletes retain better and perform better overall on average. And so we're going to continue to emphasize growth in athletics in a positive way. Because it's not just about the enrollment, it's about the athletic program develops so many good life skills in there, resiliency, team building, leadership skills, all a positive way to help those students develop in their overall educational environment that the Mount is.
SARAH BROWN: So Mr. Newman was considered a nontraditional president because he came from the finance world, outside of academia. You came to the Mount from West Point, where you were dean and chief academic officer for six years. Do you think that your academic background gave you an advantage as you came into this role?
TIM TRAINOR: Well, it certainly gives me an advantage because I understand curriculum development, faculty development, student development, teaching. I also understand accreditation processes very well, shared-governance processes. And so having that kind of experience really helped me in stepping into this environment. Of course, coming out of the military educational system to the civilian education system is different. But I'm learning quickly. And I do believe that my background at the Academy really has helped me in transition into this wonderful opportunity I have.
SARAH BROWN: So you were brought in to serve on an interim basis for two years. And you've said that you want the job permanently. So what is your top short-term goal for Mount St. Mary's, and your top long-term goal, if you're able to stay on after the two-year period?
TIM TRAINOR: Sure. Thank you, that's a great question, Sarah. My top short-term goal is to build a strategic plan, a five-year strategic plan, in a collaborative fashion engaging all stakeholders of the university in helping chart a positive way forward into the future. So, short term. And we're going to develop that over the course of this academic year. And I hope to present that to the board next fall. That way, charting a positive direction for the future for the Mount. My long-term goal is then to realize through the implementation of that a path forward for the Mount that keeps us relevant and exciting for the future and puts us on a firm financial footing, both in the short and long term.
SARAH BROWN: Great. Well, thank you so much for being with us today, President Trainor, I really appreciate it.
TIM TRAINOR: Well, thank you, Sarah. I really enjoyed our conversation.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.