Tough Questions for Mount St. Mary's

Accreditor orders university to provide answers on how recent developments may place it out of compliance with one requirement and four standards.

February 26, 2016

In June, Mount St. Mary's University received reaffirmation of its accreditation, with strong reviews, from the Middle States Commission on Higher Education.

But after a month of controversy at the Maryland institution, Middle States may be having second thoughts. It has told the university that it must provide answers by March 15 to questions about how “recent developments” may “have implications for continued compliance” with one requirement and four standards that are crucial to being accredited. And the standards in question aren’t minor technical issues, but core requirements on issues such as integrity, admissions and the way faculty members are treated.

The Mount St. Mary’s campus has been in turmoil since word leaked last month through The Mountain Echo, the student newspaper, that President Simon Newman had 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.

For those just catching up on the controversy, here is an article about the initial report on the now infamous bunnies metaphor, an article on the firing of two faculty members who opposed Newman (and whom he subsequently reinstated), and another piece on growing national outrage. Throughout the furor, many have asked who has the authority to stop what they view as a deeply flawed president who has the backing (at least to date) of his board.

The answer may well be the Middle States accreditor. While Simon can ignore a request by the faculty that he resign (as he appears to be doing), he can’t ignore any subsequent finding from Middle States that some of his actions raise questions about institutional eligibility for accreditation.

A spokesman for the university released the following statement on the inquiry from the accreditor: "We are in receipt of an inquiry from Middle States and will be providing a reply according to their timeline. In June of 2015, Mount St. Mary’s University received the highest accolades when our accreditor reaffirmed our accreditation with no concerns. We welcome their recent request and are addressing it through the appropriate university channels."

Middle States has (in public on its website) only specified the standards on which it wants answers from Mount St. Mary’s; it hasn’t said that various actions specifically violate those standards. But reading the standards, there are phrases and provisions that appear to faculty members to be relevant to what has happened at the university. While faculty members continue to fear talking with their names quoted, given the recent firings, they say that they are encouraged that the accreditor is asking questions.

Here are some of the provisions about which Middle States has asked for a report from Mount St. Mary’s and why they could be significant:

  • Integrity. The integrity standards say: “In all its activities, whether internal or external, an institution should keep its promises, honor its contracts and commitments, and represent itself truthfully.” Faculty members say that this was violated when the college gave new students a survey without explaining its use, when faculty members were fired in violations of their contracts and when administrators said faculty members had broken university rules. The integrity provision also states that faculty members have the right “to question assumptions,” something faculty members say the university violated by criticizing professors for disagreeing with the president and not showing sufficient loyalty.
  • Admissions and retention. The standards state that colleges must have “programs and services to ensure that admitted students who marginally meet or do not meet the institution’s qualifications achieve expected learning goals and higher education outcomes at appropriate points.” Critics say that planning to weed out such students with a survey given before they started class violates that standard. Faculty members also note that the Middle States standards invite colleges to provide “evidence that support programs and services for low-achieving students are effective in helping students to persist and to achieve learning goals and higher education outcomes.” The implication of this language, professors say, is that the college is supposed to be committed to helping students persist, not trying to get them to leave.
  • Faculty. The standards require colleges to have “published and implemented standards and procedures for all faculty and other professionals, for actions such as appointment, promotion, tenure, grievance, discipline and dismissal, based on principles of fairness with due regard for the rights of all persons.” Faculty members said that while “published” rules at the colleges may provide for a faculty role in evaluating faculty members, Simon fired people without any faculty role or without any fair rationale. Further, they note that while the president rehired the faculty members, he cited “mercy” as the reason for doing so, suggesting there was nothing wrong with the dismissals.
  • Leadership and governance. The standards say that colleges must have “a climate of shared collegial governance in which all constituencies (such as faculty, administration, staff, students and governing board members, as determined by each institution) involved in carrying out the institution’s mission and goals participate in the governance function in a manner appropriate to that institution. Institutions should seek to create a governance environment in which issues concerning mission, vision, program planning, resource allocation and others, as appropriate, can be discussed openly by those who are responsible for each activity.” Faculty members say this has been violated by firing faculty members who disagree with the president, and by removing administrators and faculty members who don’t share the president’s apparent vision of a lesser emphasis on the liberal arts in the curriculum.

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