The president of Mount St. Mary's University in Maryland on Monday fired two faculty members without any faculty review of his action or advance notice. One was a tenured professor who had recently criticized some of the president's policies. The other was the adviser to the student newspaper that revealed the president recently told faculty members concerned about his retention plans that they needed to change the way they view struggling students. "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 said.
Many believe a third faculty member may also be fired, as he also has criticized the president's policies. Administrators were seen trying to find that faculty member today for an urgent meeting, which is how the two who were fired were dismissed. It is unclear whether they were able to locate the third faculty member.
Monday's firings follow the dismissal on Friday of Provost David Rehm, who also raised questions about President Simon Newman's retention plans. (Rehm held on to his faculty position.)
Newman's letter firing the tenured professor -- Thane M. Naberhaus of the philosophy department -- accused him of disloyalty.
"As an employee of Mount St. Mary's University, you owe a duty of loyalty to this university and to act in a manner consistent with that duty. However, your recent actions, in my opinion and that of others, have violated that duty and clearly justify your termination," said the letter.
Further, the letter said that Naberhaus's actions "have caused considerable damage" to the university and that the university might sue him. In addition, the letter told Naberhaus he was "designated persona non grata" and banned from the campus.
Faculty members reached on campus Monday were nervous about talking, given that their colleagues were being fired and that the administration has told them to consult with the public relations department before talking to reporters. But, speaking anonymously, professors said some faculty and support staff members were crying in various offices. With the firing of the provost and two faculty members -- all of whom had disagreed with the president -- people said they were scared.
"It's terrifying, and nobody is safe," said one faculty member. "It is shattering. It feels like the end of what so many of us have sacrificed for."
Naberhaus said in an interview shortly after he was dismissed that it was "utterly fraudulent" to fire someone for not being loyal. He said he objected to the idea that dissenting views could be considered sufficiently disloyal to merit dismissal.
Further, he said he wasn't disloyal and that since arriving in 2004, he had worked constantly for the university, leading its honors college, advising students and participating in campus life. "I love this institution and what it's been and what it could be," he said. "I think I've been loyal to the Mount. Who determines that I'm not loyal? And how? How can you fire someone this way?"
A spokesman for Mount St. Mary's did not respond to several email messages seeking comment on the dismissals, except to confirm that the two faculty members known to have been dismissed are no longer employees.
A New President and Debates Over Philosophy
Mount St. Mary's is a small Roman Catholic university, with a strong emphasis on a rigorous and traditional liberal arts education.
Much of the debate follows the appointment of Newman as president last year. His prior career was not in higher education but in private equity and business. His biography says he founded or co-founded four businesses and worked at various times for Bain & Co., JP Capital Partners and Cornerstone Management Group.
Last year many objected to cuts the university imposed on the health benefits of retirees. Mount St. Mary's has always prided itself on being a close community -- and the move struck many as inconsistent with the institution's values. That's when some people started posting to social media with images like the one on top of this article that says, "Praying for My Mount Family." Those images started circulating again on Monday.
The conflicts came to a head in a debate over Newman's retention strategy, which involved giving new students a survey, telling them there were no wrong answers and then using the results in part to decide which students to encourage to drop out early -- before they would owe much tuition or incur debt and before the college would have to record them as dropouts. The president has said that such action could raise the college's retention rate. And it was in discussing these plans with faculty members that he made the now infamous quote about drowning bunnies.
The Mount St. Mary's board, while noting his use of an "unfortunate metaphor," has stood by Newman's plans and suggested that faculty members who don't like the president are responsible for the current tensions at the university.
Many faculty members have criticized the president's plans, saying it is unethical for a college to admit students and not do everything possible to encourage success. These faculty members have said it would be completely legitimate for the university to raise its admissions standards, but that the obligation to all new students is to assume they will succeed with the right support.
'Bunny Drowning' Goes Public
Last month The Mountain Echo, the student newspaper, revealed the debate over retention strategies and Newman's quote about needing to view students as bunnies to be drowned. Mount St. Mary's board members have repeatedly criticized the student newspaper for using leaked email messages in its reporting and accused faculty members of helping the students with the article. After the student newspaper reported on the issue, The Washington Post, Inside Higher Ed and others did so, and the quote drew nationwide attention (much of it critical).
Ed Egan, an alumnus of the university, has been serving as faculty adviser to The Mountain Echo, among other duties. He is the other faculty member who was fired Monday. Egan did not have tenure. He declined to comment.
Ryan Golden, managing editor of the newspaper, said he was "appalled" and upset by Egan's dismissal. "He has been a good mentor for students, always encouraging us, always raising questions of ethics about our reporting."
Frank D. LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, said via email that he was very concerned about what happened to Egan.
"There's an unfortunate history of colleges using the journalism adviser as a vehicle for controlling, or retaliating against, students' journalistic work, so any removal in close proximity to an unflattering story is by definition suspicious," LoMonte said. "A free and watchful press can't exist under threat of institutional retaliation, and no adviser should ever be removed or threatened for failing to prevent the publication of truthful information, no matter how hurtful to the institution's reputation. No respectable educational institution would force scientific researchers or behavioral researchers to bias the outcome of their work in violation of the standards of their profession, and the same should hold true for journalism. There needs to be a complete, independent and transparent investigation into the circumstances of this dismissal. The student journalists of Mount St. Mary's are entitled to every reassurance that inquisitive journalism will not be regarded as a punishable offense."
Amid all the tensions, 12 faculty members at Mount St. Mary's last week created a campus chapter of the American Association of University Professors. Monday's dismissals brought the chapter's membership down to 10.