Leadership & Governance

A President's Plan to Steer Out At-Risk Freshmen Incites a Campus Backlash

January 20, 2016

Simon Newman was ousted as president of Mount St. Mary's U. of Maryland after more than 8,000 people signed a petition demanding his resignation.

Few people at Mount St. Mary’s University of Maryland would disagree that too many students are dropping out in the first year, but the president’s suggestion that faculty members stop treating them as "cuddly bunnies" and "drown the bunnies" instead has many fuming.

The president, Simon P. Newman, was referring to a plan to encourage students who are least likely to succeed to drop out in the first month.

He told The Chronicle that doing so, before students go into debt, is the most humane approach for students who have made it clear that they aren’t ready for or interested in college.

"Maybe they want to join the Army or go to a community college first," said Mr. Newman, a private-equity chief executive officer and entrepreneur who became president of the Roman Catholic university last year. "It’s immoral to have them take on debt doing something they don’t want to do."

One way he hoped to identify students who would be better off leaving early was by having faculty members administer a survey, developed in his office, during freshman orientation. The survey includes questions about students’ resilience and learning goals.

The idea, he told The Chronicle, was to steer struggling students to academic advisers quickly and to help spare those who are least likely to succeed from making an expensive mistake.

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.

 Faculty members who balked at the plan weren’t convinced that that was the real goal.

They cited statements in emails that were leaked to the student newspaper, The Mountain Echo, that indicate the president felt that the university would benefit if at-risk students left early.

"My short-term goal is to have 20-25 people leave by the 25th" of September, Mr. Newman wrote in an August 21 email to the provost, David B. Rehm. "This one thing will boost our retention 4-5%. A larger committee or group needs to work on the details, but I think you get the objective."

The university’s retention rate, reported to the federal government, is based on the number of students enrolled on September 25. That is also the date by which students must withdraw if they want to get a tuition refund.

'It's immoral to have them take on debt doing something they don't want to do.'
The university’s six-year graduation rate for full-time students is 66 percent. Seventy-eight percent of freshmen return after the first year, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

A ‘Come to Jesus’ Meeting

In an interview on Tuesday, the president said the survey was part of a larger plan to identify struggling students early, steer them into counseling and tutoring, and then encourage professors to have a "come to Jesus" meeting with those least likely to complete the semester.

Mr. Newman said he was concerned that the university was losing more than 20 percent of its students after the first year and he wanted to know why. The plan also included keeping tabs on who was attending campus events, eating in the cafeterias, and paying bills.

He said he was frustrated to learn that those "come to Jesus" meetings he wanted faculty members to have with the least-engaged students weren’t happening.

And he acknowledged using "an unfortunate metaphor" in a testy conversation with Gregory W. Murry, an assistant professor of history who oversees a freshman writing seminar that begins during orientation. The survey was conducted during that class, which is intended to help students adjust to college life.

Mr. Murry told the student newspaper that during their conversation, the president 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."

Asked by The Chronicle  about that conversation, Mr. Newman said his comments had been taken out of context ("and I might have said puppies, not bunnies," he added).

"People focused on the idea that our goal was to get rid of people, and that was ridiculous," Mr. Newman said. "That’s the last thing you want to do, but at the same time, for people who have made an error, the moral thing is to say it’s OK to do something else. I’d rather you had your money back."

‘Not a Compelling Reason’

Mr. Murry said his original understanding, when he agreed to incorporate the survey into the writing classes he oversees, was that it would help students understand their learning styles and how to improve their performance. He said that when it became clear that the president saw the survey as a way to determine who should be encouraged or even forced to leave, he and some of his faculty colleagues balked.

"Leaving aside (for the moment) the merits and practicality of the proposal to get 25 students to ‘leave’ before the end of September, I think that we have to insist that the results of this survey not be used for that purpose," he wrote to a handful of colleagues in August.

For one thing, it wasn’t clear that the survey was a useful predictor of retention, Mr. Murry wrote. Secondly, "no parent is going to be persuaded that the results of this survey are a compelling reason to pull their child out of college after only three weeks. I’ve had parents insist that 8 F’s in the freshman year is not a compelling reason for their child not to return to college, so it’s hard to see where a parent would be persuaded by an experimental personality test."

Students will probably assume the survey is confidential, he added, and could feel betrayed if administrators used their scores without their permission to determine if they were fit for college.

In an interview Tuesday evening, Mr. Murry said the president asked him on September 21 for a list of students who weren’t likely to succeed.

"This was a Monday, and he basically wanted them gone by Friday," Mr. Murry said.

'I don't think it's ethical to tell someone they aren't going to make it in college after four weeks.'
The deadline was extended to October 2, but faculty members "ran out the clock" by refusing to turn over the names of struggling students by that date, Mr. Murry said.

"We saw it as a way to artificially inflate the retention figures," he said. "I don’t think it’s ethical to tell someone they aren’t going to make it in college after four weeks."

‘Grossly Inaccurate’

Among those who raised concerns about the president’s plan was Joshua P. Hochschild, then dean of the College of Liberal Arts.

"As you know, I share your concerns about the survey," Leona A. Sevick, associate provost and an associate professor of English, wrote to Mr. Hochschild during the August email exchange. "I don’t know if dismissing students was part of the original plan for the survey, but you’re right — it’s become part of the broad rhetoric surrounding improving retention and identifying at-risk students quickly."

She said she had explained to the president that "we can only dismiss students, according to our catalog, if they fail to attend classes or are creating a disturbance in this academic community. We cannot dismiss students because we think they won’t succeed."

John E. Coyne III, chair of the university’s Board of Trustees, wrote a letter last month to the managing editor of the student newspaper, Ryan Golden, after the newspaper gave administrators a chance to comment on its draft article. In the letter, which the newspaper published on Tuesday, Mr. Coyne accused the paper of giving readers a "grossly inaccurate impression" of the university’s retention efforts.

He didn’t spell out what those inaccuracies were but blasted the newspaper for publishing "confidential emails," which, he said, violated the university’s code of conduct.

"Beyond the issue of access is the fact that you propose to use those private, confidential emails to advance your journalistic interests and to do so without any concern for either the individual privacy interests of the faculty involved or the damage you will render to this university and to its brand," he wrote.

The editor, in a response published the same day, defended the article and suggested that the board chair was "shooting the messenger."

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.