Drowned Bunnies: Part 2

Mount St. Mary's board defends president and blames small faculty group for controversy over his "inappropriate metaphor" and plans for freshmen. Emails obtained by Inside Higher Ed back original reports about president's goals.

January 25, 2016
Mount St. Mary's University

It may be the worst possible metaphor for a college president to use in talking about struggling students. Simon Newman, president of Mount St. Mary's University, in Maryland, told faculty members: “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.”

The quote was first revealed by the student newspaper, The Mountain Echo, along with leaked emails about a plan by the president to use a survey of freshmen to identify those unlikely to succeed and convince them to leave the university in the first weeks of their first semester -- before they would owe full tuition, but also before they could be counted as noncompleters who would bring down the university's official retention rate.

Newman originally responded by saying that he didn't remember the language he used, and the university's board chair accused the student newspaper of using "selected quotes" out of context to create a "slant" in its article.

On Friday evening, as the area around Mount St. Mary's was hit by a severe blizzard, the university sent some reporters a new statement from the board chair that (1) admitted that the president had used an "unfortunate metaphor" (apparently the one about drowning bunnies), (2) strongly defended the president's program to raise the retention rate in part through better counseling early in students' careers and (3) blamed the controversy on a small group of faculty members opposed to Newman's presidency (which started last year) and seeking to undermine and even end it.

The board chair, John E. Coyne, wrote, "We 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. This group’s issues are born out of a real resistance to positive change at Mount St. Mary’s. Apparently they are not done with their personal attacks and are continuing, both directly and through others, to malign and denigrate President Newman and our plans for the university’s future by circulating mischaracterized accounts and flat-out falsehoods. This will not stand and cannot be let to stand at our university. One of our hallmarks requires each member of the Mount community to treat others with dignity and respect and with the highest integrity. As such, the university will hold those individuals accountable for these actions."

So is this a case of ugly campus politics, as Coyne has alleged, or something more? One active alumnus called the Friday night statement "a press release that doesn't address the real issues."

While the university sent out Coyne's statement, a spokesman did not respond to a number of specific questions about President Newman's policies and said the president was not available for interviews. Further, the university sent all faculty members an email message last week informing them that all university employees must clear any communications with reporters first with the university spokesman. That's the same spokesman who sent out the board chair's statement saying the actions of the faculty members who were circulating materials the university says are mischaracterizations "will not stand."

Many faculty members declined to comment at all, citing the university's rule that they had to inform the public relations office first. Those who did talk insisted on anonymity and described people fearing for their jobs if they were quoted critically about the president or the board. These professors acknowledged that some faculty members have opposed Newman for reasons that go beyond the current controversy, but also said that the opposition to what is being billed as a retention effort was grounded in principle.

Many professors have been saddened to learn that retiree health benefits on which many emeritus professors counted were ended. A letter to the editor of the student newspaper by three retired professors -- who collectively served 104 years on the faculty there -- left many faculty members feeling uncertain about the decision making by the university, professors said.

The email messages first quoted in the student newspaper, and now obtained by Inside Higher Ed, also back up the original articles on the situation. The emails discuss concerns about the retention plan being raised by Provost David Rehm, another administrator and faculty members saying they were troubled by the idea that a survey of freshmen would be used in ways the freshmen didn't understand.

Rehm wrote that while some of the survey questions seemed appropriate, he was concerned that those to identify "at-risk students" were being given without thought to what information should be shared with students, and how this would help them. Rehm wrote that he was concerned that the university was moving too quickly when "all of this needs more reflection."

Rehm did not respond to a request by Inside Higher Ed to talk about his email message or those sent by faculty members.

One professor wrote, for example, that it was unethical to give freshmen a survey, telling them it would not have consequences but planning to use answers to identify students to encourage to leave. The professor also questioned the ethics of using the survey in ways that go beyond the orientation-style approach with which it was described to students. "Saying to a student, 'Your score indicates you should join a club' is a lot different than saying, 'Your score indicates that you will fail out of school, so you should leave now.'"

This professor's email also said that he doubted parents would encourage their students to withdraw based on the survey. "I've had parents insist that eight 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."

Another administrator's email said she was concerned that the university was effectively adding criteria on which to dismiss students without saying so in the handbook that tells students the grounds for dismissal. That email specifically talked about the administrator's concerns that the president wanted to dismiss students "because we think they won't succeed," and how that is not among criteria given in the handbook.

The university -- since the scandal broke -- has tried to frame the retention effort as one aimed at helping students avoid spending (or borrowing) to attend a university where they have little chance of success. But professors, speaking anonymously, said if that was the case, the university should not have admitted these students only months earlier. (The board chair's statement does acknowledge the need to improve the admissions process.)

But the professors ask, if the university is making the wrong admissions decisions, why should students be punished? Further, they say that if helping students is the real motivation, the president would not have been setting specific targets for the number of students to dismiss early, as opposed to the number to help early.

And several sources noted that the president's email that has been widely cited (and among those obtained by Inside Higher Ed) focuses on a specific goal for a number of students to dismiss by a set date. "My short-term goal is to have 20-25 people leave by [September] 25th. This one thing will boost our retention 4-5 percent," the email says. Professors note that the president's goal wasn't stated as providing better counseling or support services to 20-25 students, but having them leave.

That's what they say makes the board chair's statement about how the retention program is about helping students hard for them to believe.

One professor who asked not to be identified said his opposition to the president's approach was based on students who are helped to succeed every year. "Everybody has students who they were worried weren't going to make it, but who turned out to do great things," the professor said.

An alumnus, like the professors interviewed, said there was nothing wrong with trying to improve counseling for students who may be at risk. But he said the focus needs to be on helping the students make it, something he said a small college that prides itself on personal connections between faculty members and students should be well situated to do.

It was "shocking," he said, that the board didn't distance itself not only from the bunnies metaphor but the idea behind it. Of the people President Newman talked about wanting to see leave, the alumnus said, "These are real students … real people are involved."

Faculty Rights

Henry Reichman, chair of the American Association of University Professors' Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure, in an interview took issue with several statements from Mount St. Mary's administration. He said faculty members should not be criticized for organizing in opposition to policies that they oppose -- and for taking their concerns to student journalists.

As for the idea that faculty members should check with a public relations office before talking to reporters, Reichman said that was "totally illegitimate." Faculty members should be able to talk to whomever they want, he said, including journalists.

He noted the irony that the university's president is the one who apparently needs public relations advice. "The person who needs to clear things in advance is a president who makes moronic statements like treating students like bunnies to drown," he said.


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