Reconciliation or Another Round at Mount St. Mary's?

Board sends conciliatory email to faculty members at Maryland institution, but they are also receiving messages from some alumni telling them to stop opposing the president.

February 17, 2016

The board of Mount St. Mary's University on Tuesday sent faculty members an email message that apologized for "the breakdown in compassionate communication and collaboration that we have all witnessed in the past few weeks."

The message also announced plans for board members to spend time on campus this week and next to "listen and learn."

Some faculty members -- talking anonymously, as many continue to fear for their jobs -- were encouraged by the message. Others said they remained seriously worried about the direction of the institution and questioned whether the board could possibly understand the depth of concern, which predated the last week and even the president's metaphor about drowning bunnies, given how long it has taken the board to reach out in this way. Adding to the concern of some is that alumni supporters of President Simon Newman have been sending professors letters asking them to take back their vote urging the president to resign.

The Mount St. Mary's campus in Maryland has been in turmoil since word leaked through The Mountain Echo, the student newspaper, last month that Newman compared struggling students to bunnies that need to be drowned or killed with a Glock. The metaphor grabbed attention, but educators said the underlying debate was what really mattered.

Newman had proposed to use a survey -- on which freshmen would be told there were no wrong answers -- to identify those at risk of dropping out and to encourage them to do so in the first weeks of the semester. The idea was to raise the university's retention rate, since those who leave very early in the semester don't count in the total enrollment figures. Many professors and some administrators protested the plan, saying that the university has an obligation to try to educate those it admits. Then last week, Newman fired two faculty members (one of them with tenure) without any faculty review, numerous academic groups condemned his actions and the faculty voted overwhelmingly to demand his resignation.

Newman didn't quit, and on Monday attended a rally organized by students who back him. Many students say he has improved the quality of life on campus. And while faculty members and many alumni object to Newman's apparent shift away from a liberal arts orientation, some students are just fine with that.

The board email made no mention of Newman, although a board member attended a faculty meeting and said that the board was standing behind Newman.

The email from the board also said, "As with many of you, the board is very concerned about what is taking place. The trustees are seeking to gather all of the necessary information so that they may better guide the university’s path forward. The current situation at the Mount is naturally of great importance and urgency to the board and the trustees wish to take the time to listen, and to hear from all of the constituencies involved in order to make the best informed decisions."

While that email was conciliatory, many faculty members have been receiving messages from alumni who back Newman, urging them to change their minds. Some of the messages call on faculty members to vote "their conscience," which bothers some professors who said that in fact they did just that when they urged Newman to resign.

Another email some have received says, "Evil is swirling around the Mount, creating chaos and angst everywhere. But even as Satan sows seeds of hate and confusion it is possible to see God's grace at work. I've reconnected with classmates and schoolmates, strengthening old friendships and making new ones." That email goes on to say that "Dr. Newman is trying to bring about necessary changes to strengthen the Mount and position it for a stronger future. I hope reports of strong-arm tactics to influence the vote against Dr. Newman are unfounded." (Newman received an M.B.A. from Stanford University, according to his page on the Mount St. Mary's website, but does not have a doctoral degree.)

Faculty members, aware that they have been told not to talk to reporters without first consulting the public relations office, said privately that they are bothered by the tone of the email messages they are receiving. They say it's perfectly acceptable for supporters of Newman to make their case. But they say that they are unable to publicly defend themselves (for risk of losing their jobs) but are being slammed for using "strong-arm tactics" they say they didn't use.

One faculty member who asked not to be identified said via email, "Any suggestion that consciences were coerced in Friday's vote is outrageous and false. The ballot was secret, everyone who asked to speak spoke, and there was a specific call for people opposed to speak up and state their reservations. It was a clean vote, and no one should say otherwise."

The university did not respond to a question on whether the administration has played any role in the email campaign.


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