What's Up With the Mounts Saint Mary?

Mount Saint Mary College in New York isn't affiliated with Mount St. Mary's University in Maryland, but professors at the former say it's headed down the same path as the latter, with dissenting faculty members dismissed and trustees showing up at search committee meetings.

February 15, 2016
Mount Saint Mary College in Newburgh, N.Y.

Denials of due process, punishing faculty members for speaking out against the institution, powerful administrative personalities undercutting decades of tradition -- Mount Saint Mary College has seen it all in recent months, faculty members say. But not that Mount St. Mary’s -- another one: Mount Saint Mary College in Newburgh, N.Y., where professors have watched with interest and empathy the developments at Mount St. Mary’s University in Maryland. (The two institutions are not affiliated, although they are both Roman Catholic.)

But while administrative fiats and “bunny drowning” at the Maryland campus appear to be driven by that president’s desire to move up in the national rankings, and possibly become less Catholic, fiats at the New York institution may spring from the opposite impulse. The college’s current administration wants to make it more conservatively Catholic, faculty members say, in ways that stray from its long Dominican tradition and diminish its commitment to spiritual diversity, academic freedom and shared governance.

“To me, the governance structure has begun to emulate the church hierarchy -- this is what the men say, and that’s what you do,” said James Beard, a professor of communication arts at Mount Saint Mary College. “I’ve been here 34 years and I entered a very warm, welcoming, nurturing place, and this is now a hostile place.”

Beard’s retiring this year -- happily, in his words -- but said he still feels “a lot of responsibility for the young faculty members recently brought onto this campus for what they’re inheriting. I don’t want to see this happen.”

Faculty members have lots of complaints about the college’s current administration, particularly the growing role of its Board of Trustees in everyday affairs -- affairs that on most campuses are primarily the domain of the faculty. The board has overturned the recommendations of several recent promotion and tenure committee decisions, and trustees have sat on a faculty search committee. Most recently, this month, faculty members say, Albert J. Gruner, board chair, confronted James Phillips, an associate professor of theater, in his office to ask him why he’d posted what Gruner called “slanderous” comments about the college on his personal Facebook page. The encounter was heated, according to various faculty accounts, and violated an explicit college policy that the faculty communicate with the board through the college president. (The president, Anne Carson Daly, accompanied the board chair to the faculty member’s office, faculty members say, but then left.)

Phillips declined to comment on the matter. But other faculty members say the skirmish was over Phillips’s comments regarding the social media account of a new trustee, Andrew Bournos, who was introduced to the faculty this fall as a “social media guru.” Perhaps naturally, various faculty members visited his social media accounts -- and found some questionable posts.

Of particular concern to a number of professors was a tweet from June 2013 saying, “Acabo de ver [Spanish for ‘I have just seen’] Muslims and Jews.” The post included a link to a video from Church Militant, a conservative Catholic website. In the video, Michael Voris, the site’s executive producer, questions Cardinal Timothy Dolan for commenting during a visit to a New York mosque that Muslims and Christians worship the “same god” and must “hold on” to their faith. Foreshadowing the Larycia Hawkins debate at Wheaton College in Illinois, Voris said the “same god” statement needed clarification. But he devoted a larger portion of his commentary to the idea that Muslims should hold on to their faith, drawing a distinction between supernatural faith (to which he said true Catholics ascribe, based on their belief in the holy trinity) and reason-based faith. Voris said Muslims and Jews ascribe to the latter.

Of “the Muslims” in particular, he said, “They have no supernatural faith, and therefore they have no supernatural act of worship.” Voris continued, “And even the Jews, who rejected Jesus as trinity, they rejected God as trinity. They have no faith. And therefore, their worship also is natural, not supernatural.”

Faculty members were taken aback by the statement that Jews “have no faith,” and began to circulate the tweet. They also noted that other videos by Voris, suggested as additional viewing on YouTube, had such titles as “The Jewish Conspiracy” and “Islam Founded on Murder.” The post was reported to the administration, which, after a some months, determined that Bournos hadn’t “liked” the video -- just tweeted about it -- and therefore hadn’t necessarily endorsed it.

In an email to faculty members earlier this month, Gruner, the board chair, wrote, “As I understand it, the trustee instead indicated that he had viewed the video clip, but expressed no opinion as to his feeling regarding its content.” Gruner added, “We have also consulted with counsel regarding the video and this matter, and have been advised that the trustee’s reference to the video would not constitute the creation of a ‘hostile environment’ for any employee on the basis of religion.”

Concerned faculty members were disappointed with the response. One Jewish faculty member, who did not want to be named, citing the environment at Mount Saint Mary, said, “In social media [what Bournos posted] is an endorsement -- you are what you post. … A couple of emails is not enough. He needs to apologize.”

Phillips wrote of his distaste for the video in a short post on his Facebook page, saying that Voris’s views evidently represent some board members’. It’s unclear how Gruner became aware of the post, but he allegedly told Phillips that it amounted to “slander.” Faculty members said that while Gruner probably meant “libel,” his statements were threatening.

Denying ‘the Mount’s’ Dominican Roots?

For professors at Mount Saint Mary, the recent incident was something of the straw that broke the camel’s back -- certainly not the first clue that shared governance and academic freedom might be under threat. Things began to change when Gruner became board chair in 2012, they said, and got worse during the search for a new college president in 2014.

Professors questioned why that job ad specified that the successful applicant be a “faithful Catholic willing to embrace the Dominican charism and defend the Gospel,” when the college employs faculty and administrators of a variety of faiths and is an equal opportunity employer, according to state law. They also said there was little apparent interest in any candidate beyond Daly, who’d most recently served as a dean and vice president of academic affairs at Belmont Abbey College, in North Carolina. Professors worried that Belmont Abbey, which vigorously opposed the Affordable Care Act’s contraception mandate for employers, was too conservative and culturally unlike Mount Saint Mary. (Mount Saint Mary also changed its health care policy for employees in ways that make coverage for elective abortions and vasectomies more restrictive, in 2012.)

One of those professors, Erin Crockett, then an assistant professor of business, shared her concerns about Daly and Belmont Abbey on a faculty Listserv. In a lengthy 2014 memo, she opposed an administrative proposal to add a required religion course to the core curriculum -- which administrators said would benefit its chances at renewal of accreditation by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education -- and said that Daly seemed to be pushing policies endorsed by the Cardinal Newman Society, a conservative Catholic organization. She cited a society report quoting Daly while she was still at Belmont Abbey as stressing “the importance of departmental mission statements being coordinated with the overall mission statement of the college or university,” including in such fields as biology.

Crockett also said Daly told the advocacy chapter of the American Association of University Professors that she believed in “hiring according to mission,” and that that commonly meant that 50 percent of faculty and staff should be Catholic. The AAUP chapter stands by this account, but Daly in an email to faculty members disputed it, saying, “With regard to hiring for mission, that does not mean hiring only Catholics and does not violate any laws. Hiring for mission means hiring those who are able to integrate the mission into the academic program. So long as accreditors require colleges to document that they are doing that, it will be necessary for colleges to hire faculty who make it possible for schools to comply with this requirement.” Daly also disputed the notion that Belmont Abbey was too conservative or nondiverse, saying faculty, staff and students came from variety of backgrounds.

Last year, Crockett went up for her third-year review. She received a unanimous endorsement from her department and a strong recommendation from the faculty Tenure and Promotion Committee (she doesn't know the exact vote count, but says she was told it was unanimous), but then something went wrong. Daly, who passes her recommendations for promotion and tenure on to the board, recused herself from Crockett’s case, and the board voted her down. Crockett was notified of the decision in March and wasn’t afforded the additional year that many colleges offer candidates who fail to earn promotion and tenure. Her department chair, who was not tenured, also was let go.

Crockett asked for a reason for the decision in writing, a step recommended by the AAUP, and received none, other than a boilerplate email from Gruner saying that the board, after a “deliberative process,” determined “your candidacy did not meet the college’s standards for reappointment.” She said that Daly’s recusal allowed the college to sidestep any right to appeal she might have according to college bylaws. The college denies that reappointment decisions are subject to appeal, but admits it has granted previous requests for appeal.

Now a lecturer in business at Rutgers University at New Brunswick, Crockett said she doesn’t know why she was fired, and it’s likely she’ll never find out. But she and several other faculty members believe that she was punished for speaking out against Daly.

Several members of the board “wanted to take the school in a much more conservative, Catholic direction,” she said. “But if this is a business model, I have no idea how they expect it to work in the New York City metropolitan area, recruiting heavily from Staten Island and Long Island. These are kids who want to go to college -- they’re not looking for a religious education.”

Students protested Crockett’s and the other professor’s departure last year, including by blasting Snoop Dogg’s “Gin and Juice” on campus. That’s because another professor was criticized by the administration last year for reading the rap song, which contains an expletive, at a coffeehouse-style event. Protesters also objected to new, single-sex dorms for freshmen, which the college says is a safety precaution.

Beard, the professor who’s retiring, said the message got a little “muddled,” but the protest indicated students aren’t happy with the direction the administration’s taking, either.

Things haven’t changed this year. Several faculty members said students were briefed by an attorney earlier this year on free speech rights and told they have less freedom than their counterparts at public institutions. Lawyers for the college also have begun to attend regular faculty meetings. Several board members have been sitting on the hiring committee for faculty hiring in business, following Crockett’s and the chair’s departures -- a highly unusual practice that contravenes AAUP policies and procedures recommending that faculty hiring should be the primary domain of professors.

Brenda Krulik, a college spokeswoman, said that a “couple of board members did sit on the search committee for the chair of the business school, but so did the three senior faculty members in the department and a couple of senior administrators.” That’s not a violation of the faculty handbook, she said, and “made good sense,” since board members collaborate closely with the business school to raise support in the local business community.”

Mount Saint Mary also added another layer of administration with a new executive vice president. Mark Newcomb comes to the college from the University of Saint Thomas in Houston, but prior to that worked as an interim dean at Belmont Abbey.

Sometimes colleges buckle down on their religious missions due to concerns about enrollment, to distinguish themselves from similar institutions. But concerned faculty members at Mount Saint Mary say that’s not what’s happening. Rather, they say, administrative ideologies are shaping the college.

Crockett said she thought Mount Saint Mary’s Dominican tradition and culture, which emphasized Catholic values as well as a commitment to diversity of thought and the liberal arts, was “perfect” when she arrived, but that any institution is free to change. But change should happen in a transparent way that includes input from faculty members and students, she said.

The college denies that any change has been covert, or that it's downplaying its Dominican roots.

“The trustees, like the president, are firmly committed to shared governance and recognize the important role played by the faculty, administration and the board in advancing the college,” Krulik said via email. “Remaining faithful to the college’s Catholic and Dominican identity is very important to the Dominican sisters and to the members of the Board of Trustees. Part of reason that the Strategic Plan (2015-2019) focuses on the college’s Catholic and Dominican heritage is to address a report from the college’s accreditors, the Middle States Commission, which suggested that the core should strive ‘to be effective in introducing students to the larger Catholic intellectual tradition ….’”

Regarding changes to faculty meeting protocols, Krulik said that at Daly’s initiative, “for the first time in the history of the school, over the last year members of the faculty and of the board have met regularly to discuss important campus issues.” The board worked with faculty members to develop the strategic plan, she said, and met separately with faculty members to discuss the nonreappointments last year, as well.

Over all, Krulik said, the board is “committed to maintaining and nurturing the Mount’s tradition of welcoming people of all faiths and no faith.” In a letter to students, faculty and staff, for example, she said, Gruner and Daly wrote: “As you are well aware, the word ‘Catholic’ means ‘universal.’ Everywhere across America, Catholic colleges, hospitals, nursing homes and charities of all kinds welcome people of all faiths and of no faith. At the Mount, we have always been -- and continue to be -- proud to continue this tradition.”

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Colleen Flaherty

Colleen Flaherty, Reporter, covers faculty issues for Inside Higher Ed. Prior to joining the publication in 2012, Colleen was military editor at the Killeen Daily Herald, outside Fort Hood, Texas. Before that, she covered government and land use issues for the Greenwich Time and Hersam Acorn Newspapers in her home state of Connecticut. After graduating from McGill University in Montreal in 2005 with a degree in English literature, Colleen taught English and English as a second language in public schools in the Bronx, N.Y. She earned her M.S.Ed. from City University of New York Lehman College in 2008 as part of the New York City Teaching Fellows program. 

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