How a Retired General Attracted Students to Mount St. Mary's

In a pandemic, his approach reassured families and yielded a record class. As for the scandal of a few years back, the students couldn't care less.

November 23, 2020
 
Mount St. Mary's University

This was the year when colleges had to throw out their plans for freshmen. Many colleges offered only online instruction, or had students on campus but still taking most of their classes online. Nationally, freshman enrollment is down 13 percent.

But Mount St. Mary's University, in Maryland, which last captured media attention for a certain scandal in 2016, is having an unusually successful year. Four years ago the then-president was quoted as telling faculty members to be tougher on students, with the words “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.”

More on the scandal later in the story.

This year, Mount St. Mary's attracted 668 students. That's after three years in the mid-500s (which is the college's goal), and a 2016 total of 417. Applications in the last year rose from 4,720 to 6,448.

The college had so many students who wanted to enroll that it had to use a waiting list and to rent hotel rooms for some students to live in.

Why is Mount St. Mary's having this success?

Many credit Timothy E. Trainor, the president. Trainor came in after the previous president left, first serving as interim president before being named to the position permanently.

His background is in some ways nontraditional for a liberal arts college president. He spent 33 years in the Army, ending his time in service as a brigadier general and as dean and chief academic officer at the United States Military Academy. His Army roots are clear in his family -- his wife is a retired colonel. Their three children are all in the Army. He is a graduate of West Point and also has an M.B.A. from Duke University and a doctorate in industrial engineering from North Carolina State University.

At the Mount, he is credited for moving past the scandals and for adopting a plan for the fall that made most students and faculty feel safe (15 percent of students are enrolled strictly online). The approach is credited with getting more students than before, and with a minimal number of COVID-19 cases during the fall.

Trainor said that as he was approaching his retirement at West Point in 2016, he first heard about Mount St. Mary's -- and he was thinking that Roman Catholic higher education might be a good spot for him.

He said he was impressed by Mount St. Mary's -- although the scandal was "egregious and troubling."

Simon Newman had arrived at Mount St. Mary's as president the year before. He had founded or co-founded four businesses and worked at various times for Bain & Co., JP Capital Partners and Cornerstone Management Group. Board members thought his business sense would lead to bold changes for the college. But he was known for the belief that the college's retention rates would go up if students at risk left very quickly after they arrived. It was a tough-love approach.

The scandal broke in January 2016 and quickly escalated amid reports that Newman fired faculty members and allegations that he was trying to de-emphasize the college's Catholic mission. The quotes captured national media attention. By the end of February, he was gone.

Trainor said he hadn't followed the details of the Mount St. Mary's situation until he was approached about being interim president. What struck him at that point was how good the university was -- with a strong faculty, deeply committed to the student body, and a beautiful campus in rural Emmitsburg, Md. "I thought this was the place for my wife and I," he said.

As interim president, he worked on a strategic plan for the campus (key themes were student success, the campus environment and financial sustainability). As an interim, he might well have delayed talk of strategic planning, but Trainor said the president always needs to be planning and executing. He carried that philosophy on once he was named to the position permanently.

That was the key for managing the pandemic, he said.

"We went into crisis action mode" by March, when the last day for students on campus was March 11. First priorities were getting students home (including those who were abroad at the time).

But once students were safely home, the planning -- from April through August -- was focused on resuming classes in person.

The university -- faculty members working alongside administrators -- worked to develop a plan so that by early May, before most colleges and universities, the Mount could announce its plans to open. More than 100 people were involved (on a campus of 2,200 students).

Trainor said he saw students who wanted to come back -- safely -- and he wanted to make that possible.

Most classes are divided into two groups. For a Monday-Wednesday-Friday class, the first group is in class on Mondays and every other Friday. This group is synchronously online in other class sessions. The second group attends Wednesday and every other Friday. All classes are broadcast online.

"We can and should be prepared to have students on campus, with limitations in place," Trainor said. "Having students on campus was very important."

The work of the planning committees turned into the Mount Safe Initiative, whose first principle was "First and foremost is the health and safety of our community. No decisions will be made without first considering the health and safety of our community, informed by guidance from federal and state public health authorities."

To that end, the initiative launched a series of rules -- explained in videos -- for the campus. Face masks must be worn. Social distancing is in effect.

In-person education, with rules, "is just a better learning experience," Trainor said. Online education is fine for certain programs, but "what we are finding is that students are not as engaged in that environment."

The ultimate message, he said, "is that we're all in this together."

Despite his skepticism of undergraduate online education, Trainor said he does see the potential for using it more at the university's campus for adult students in Frederick, Md.

Jack Chielli, vice president of enrollment management, marking and communications, said the big difference in yield was the sense that the Mount was "safe" for students who wanted to be on campus.

He said the college will aim for its normal 550 new students in the fall. Capacity issues would prevent another class of 668.

Elizabeth Stevenson is a freshman from New Jersey, studying business. "The pandemic is a very big thing for us," she said of herself and her family.

The idea of a campus that is largely open -- albeit with more rules -- "was like a dream for me."

Reading The New York Times, Stevenson said, "I'm very worried, but I feel 100 percent safe here."

Jack Bowman is a freshman at the Mount, studying criminal justice. He said he was also considering attending Loyola University Maryland, which didn't reopen its campus this fall.

"It was really comforting" to visit the Mount, he said. And Loyola didn't go back fully for the fall. "The fact that the Mount was willing to do the hard work, that means a lot to me."

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