Many in academe were shocked last month when it was revealed that the new president of Mount St. Mary's University in Maryland had told faculty members they needed to view struggling students as bunnies to be drowned. The exact quote: “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 president, Simon Newman, originally wouldn't confirm the quote. But the board has now said the president used an "inappropriate metaphor." The board, however, also has defended Newman's plan, which involves identifying new students who might not succeed and encouraging them to leave the university in the first few weeks of their initial semester.
Many have wondered if Newman's presidency could survive the controversy. Now it appears the person losing his job is the provost, David Rehm, who leaked emails reveal is the senior official at the university who told Newman to hold off on his approach to retention, and that the system might not be fair to students. The system relied on giving freshmen a survey, telling them there were no wrong answers and then using the results to help identify those who might not succeed.
On Friday, Newman sent an email to faculty members -- obtained by Inside Higher Ed -- telling them he had asked for and received Rehm's resignation, effective immediately.
"When a new president is elected in any higher education institution, it is a common practice for him or her to change some of the senior leadership team. It’s all a part of moving forward, bringing in new ideas and continuously improving. I have effected such a change today by requesting and accepting the resignation of Mount St. Mary’s University Provost David Rehm."
As faculty members have noted, while it is indeed common for new presidents to change provosts, this is not typically done in a single day, particularly in replacing a provost who is well respected by faculty members.
Several professors, seeking anonymity as they fear for their jobs, said they viewed the sudden change as a sign not to oppose the president's plan. Adding to the concern, one faculty member said, at a faculty meeting on Wednesday, the provost indicated he planned to volunteer to the president to take over management of the retention program so that it could avoid the problems many see with the effort. The provost told professors he would discuss this idea with the president on Friday, the day it turned out he was fired from his position. (He retains a faculty position.)
Rehm did not respond to an email seeking comment. The university did not respond to an email request about whether the dismissal was related to the provost's offer to take over the retention program. The university did send a copy of the email announcing the provost's replacement.
One professor said it was important to remember that the president is proceeding -- against the views of many faculty members and the now former provost -- with his plan. And while the university is trying to portray the incident as just a public-relations problem, the professor said the concern is about the plan and its lack of commitment to every student admitted, not just the poor choice of metaphor. "He apologized for the language, but not the plan," said the professor.
Many faculty members believe that if the university admits students, it should focus on helping them succeed and not on culling them in the first weeks of the semester. In emails that have leaked, Newman is quoted as saying that early withdrawals -- before the university reports enrollment numbers -- could quickly increase the reported graduation rate.
Adding to the concern about the provost's ouster is the person whom President Newman named as interim provost.
His email announced the choice: "We are fortunate to have secured the services of Jennie Hunter-Cevera as our interim provost, effective immediately. Jennie is the former president of the University of Maryland Biotechnology Institute and most recently served as the state of Maryland’s acting secretary of higher education and member of Governor Hogan’s cabinet. In addition to her strong credentials as a higher education administrator, she also has deep academic, research and private sector experience as an applied microbiologist. I look forward to her ideas and contributions as a senior member of the administration, and her advice, taking into account the input of the faculty, on the choice of our next provost."
Newman's email did not note that legislators in Maryland blocked Hunter-Cevera's nomination to lead the higher education commission in the state by first delaying votes on her nomination and then refusing to schedule a vote. (Democrats control the General Assembly in Maryland, while the governor is a Republican.)
Professors fear Newman is shifting the university away from its traditional strength as a rigorous liberal arts institution, devoted to a traditional curriculum. Rehm is a philosophy professor. The institute Hunter-Cevera led at Maryland was designed to promote biotechnology research and had close ties to industry.
Further, legislators blocked her nomination after receiving word from faculty members about a 2009 vote of no confidence in her by the faculty of the institute. Professors said she made decisions without consulting them and that efforts were hurt by high turnover among administrators, The Washington Post reported. Hunter-Cevera at the time blamed "disgruntled" employees who disagreed with her decisions.
Faculty members at Mount St. Mary's said they didn't know the details of what happened at the biotechnology center. But they said they wondered why a president would bring in an interim provost -- at a time when many faculty members are frustrated by a lack of say in the direction of the institution -- who was in the past criticized for not giving faculty members an appropriate role at that institution.
"This is the person you are bringing in? Someone who had problems with shared governance?" said one faculty member.