The resignation of Simon Newman from the presidency of Mount St. Mary’s University in Maryland ends a short but sad chapter in the history of that venerable school. I was interested in Newman's presidency before his controversial retention plan hit the national news because I had been offered the presidency of the university a year earlier, in February 2014. When I declined the offer, the sitting president, Thomas H. Powell, remained in office while the board conducted another search, which led to the hiring of Newman. When he was hired, I read his profile and was surprised.
Presidential searches are rigorous. A candidate spends several days interacting with various campus constituencies. In the end, the board decides whom they will hire, but they observe those interactions closely to see how the candidates handle diverse groups and challenges. At the same time, the candidates have the opportunity to learn about the campus and the board members to whom they will report.
While these events are exhausting, they are illuminating. I enjoyed my time interacting with the Mount St. Mary’s community. They asked good questions and demanded substantive answers. What came through clearly in our conversations was that they knew who they were. They knew their purpose and identity as a Catholic liberal arts school. The entire community embraced the vernacular of their tradition and spoke fluidly about education as an opportunity for transformation and the cultivation of a life of virtue. They understood the importance of personal development characterized by humility, compassion and the respect for others that is endemic to the best of both liberal education and the Catholic tradition. I was eager to see them do well, and from what I had learned about them, I expected they would.
It wasn’t just the faculty members and students who had embraced this mission; the board members with whom I interacted did as well. When they hired a president with no background in higher education or the liberal arts, I was curious but trusted that they found what they were looking for in Newman.
As it turns out, the worst of what can happen with such a hire has come to pass. Newman’s reference to students as little bunnies that needed to be drowned or have a Glock put to their heads drew national attention. His language was exacerbated by his decision to fire dissenting members of the faculty and administration. But there is a deeper, underlying problem in the hiring of people like Newman to run institutions of higher education and liberal learning.
Mr. Newman’s off-color remarks were in reference to student retention numbers. He wanted to improve the university’s metrics by convincing students who were unlikely to persist there to leave before they would count in the institution’s retention report. If a college or university’s retention statistics improve, the thinking goes, its rankings might also improve. A better ranking might attract more students.
Newman’s approach to managing an institution whose purpose is to transform lives by building confidence, expanding imaginations and developing character is indicative of a disturbing trend in higher education. The attempt to transfer yardsticks devised in the business community to educational institutions is doomed to fail. Newman’s colorful language may have accelerated his demise, but his attempt to boost retention numbers by prioritizing rankings over the substantive mission of the institution was bad business. By reducing students to statistics, the purpose of the institution’s existence was lost.
I know of no leader in higher education who does not understand and appreciate the need for accountability. We all recognize the economic challenges of higher education. And we are searching for ways to reduce costs and maximize revenues. But those goals are the by-products of the overarching goods to which we aspire. We exist to educate human beings. This process, and the outcomes we produce, cannot be reduced to metrics relating to student wages two years after graduation. It is not that metrics are irrelevant, but we must find the right ones and use them in their proper place. They cannot supplant the reason we exist.
Business models that make achieving certain numbers the top priority fail to understand that students are complex beings who develop at different times along different trajectories. They respond to different teachers for different reasons and sometimes suddenly discover a new interest, a new passion and new abilities that transform their lives.
Many successful people would never have made it to their college graduation if they were subject to a policy that cast off the 25 students most likely not to persist after a couple of weeks of school. One first-year student I know quite well felt so out of place he dropped a handwritten note in his dean’s office on a Friday afternoon after the second week of classes saying that he was withdrawing from the institution. He enjoyed the comfort of his family living room that evening. The next morning, his father roused him and told him to make sure he had a job by Monday morning. The young man called a friend to ask for a job, and his friend told him to get back to college.
Early Monday morning, the student walked sheepishly through the door of the dean’s office. The office assistant to whom he had handed the note smiled and handed it back to him. “This has happened before,” she said. “Dean Johnson would like to speak with you.” The student nervously entered the dean’s office. Having read up on the student, the dean surprised him by asking about the sport of Irish football, which the student played throughout high school. After hearing the student describe the sport, the dean said that he would love to see a team on campus.
If Dean Johnson had wanted to improve his retention numbers, I -- the student in this story -- would have left school after my second week. Instead, he welcomed me and my Bronx-raised, Irish Catholic world into the world of an exemplary liberal arts college where I was inspired to study, learn and explore. He exposed me to faculty members who were so bright and exuded such integrity that I’ve spent my life trying to live up to their example. Because I was his student and not his customer -- or client, bottom line or whatever hard-nosed word we are supposed to use to define students -- he opened a door and pulled me through to a life that I could never have imagined or accomplished without his help and encouragement.
And that is what all of us who lead colleges and universities need to do. We need unshutter windows and open doors, not close them. We need to help people walk through those doorways, not stand in their way. We need to tear down walls, not build them. We need to let in air and light and hope.
Seamus Carey is president of Transylvania University.
The expanding controversy over President Simon Newman’s words and actions at Mount St. Mary’s University in Maryland provides an opportunity to reflect on how much has changed since a previous Newman, Cardinal John Henry Newman, authored his still widely read The Idea of a University (1853). Cardinal Newman was writing at a time when the German ideal of research was transforming universities on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. Simon Newman became president of his university at a time when higher education institutions are being asked to redefine themselves to produce employable graduates.
John Henry Newman was a convert to Catholicism and was ordained in Rome in 1846. In November 1851, he was called to the newly established Catholic University of Ireland and held that post for seven years. With his discourses, published in 1853, he sought to lay out the mission of a Catholic university for both lay and Catholic audiences.
Cardinal Newman’s The Idea of a University opens with a simple statement: a university “is a place of teaching universal knowledge. That implies that its object is, on the one hand, intellectual, not moral; and on the other, that it is the diffusion and extension of knowledge rather than the advancement.” To Newman, if the university’s “object were scientific and philosophical discovery, I do not see why a university should have students; if religious training, I do not see how it can be the seat of literature and science.” Cardinal Newman was not rejecting the church’s role but focusing attention on the specific intellectual purpose of university studies. Indeed, he believed that the church “steadies” the university “in the performance of that office.” He also ultimately did not reject the principle of university research, but sought to temper it.
Cardinal Newman believed that a university must emphasize students’ intellectual development: “to discover and to teach are distinct functions.” A university must place the students’ “spiritual welfare” at the center of its activities. It must focus its energies on “the culture of the intellect.” It must teach each student to seek truth.
He also focused his attention on why a university must be a place for liberal education. Liberal education introduces students to “an intellectual tradition” that endows them with “the great outlines of knowledge, the principles on which it rests, the scale of its parts, its lights and its shades, its great points and its little, as he otherwise cannot apprehend them.” But to what end? Here, Newman insisted, “knowledge is capable of being its own end.” Liberal education, compared to professional education, “stands on its own pretensions” and “refuses to be informed (as it is called) by any end, or absorbed into any art, in order to duly present itself to our contemplation.”
Cardinal Newman was resisting various tendencies of his time. He was defending the premise that a Catholic university should emphasize the liberal arts and sciences. He was arguing that teaching was a practice sufficiently distinct from specialized research to require its own institutions. And he was articulating an idea of liberal education that was not focused on practicality or professional education. A university, and especially a Catholic university, stood for particular goods. If those goods did not guide the institution, then it should not be called a university.
A Quite Different Newman
Simon Newman comes from a very different background. After earning bachelor's and master's degrees in the sciences from the University of Cambridge, he went to Stanford University to receive his M.B.A. Having had 30 years in the business and finance worlds, and serving as director of JP Capital Partners and as CEO of Cornerstone Management Group, he aspired to do with the university what any entrepreneur seeks to do with her or his start-up: "raise a lot of capital and start a lot of programs and start the university on a more aggressive growth trajectory." But perhaps he did not realize that a university is not a firm -- that its purposes are complex and human and cannot be boiled down to data sets.
That at least seems to be the case in the recent controversy over dismissing struggling students -- which he infamously described as a need to“drown the bunnies.” On the one hand, as Newman noted in an essay in The Washington Post, it makes sense to identify struggling students early so as to protect them and their families from unjustifiable debt burdens. On the other hand, Newman reportedly also was seeking to raise his institution’s retention rate by removing students before the date when the university must report its numbers to the federal government.
The focus on outcomes reflects a broader transformation in how we think about successful institutions. Where once business schools portrayed firms as complex institutions responsible to multiple stakeholders, they now emphasize managers’ responsibility to overcome what is called the principal-agent problem in order to maximize shareholder value, as Rakesh Khurana, a Harvard Business School professor, argues in his book From Higher Aims to Hired Hands. Owners, as principals, have clear interests, but employees, as agents, do not always share them. To align agents to serve the will of owners, managers must impose clear performance measures and accountability.
That approach is more challenging in the nonprofit and public sectors, where maximizing profit is not necessarily the best way to evaluate institutional success. But the basic approach -- setting external standards and imposing incentives and penalties to hold institutions accountable -- was adopted in what is known as the New Public Management, and is one of the principles animating President Obama’s College Scorecard.
Simon Newman’s business background makes him comfortable in this new regulatory environment. He seeks to maximize value, but the issue is about defining value. What counts? Should a desire to report higher retention rates trump the institution’s responsibility to the students it enrolls? More important, if one accepts the notion of principal-agent theory, one also imagines the university as a firm with managers and employees, and sees the role of managers as aligning all employees to meeting the firm’s stated outcomes. That makes shared governance a real problem.
Cardinal Newman had argued that a university is at the end of the day a community of “teachers and learners” gathered together, as John Schwenkler writes in First Things. But, Schwenkler, an assistant professor of philosophy at Florida State University who previously taught at Mount St. Mary’s, continues, if “the faculty of a university are the university,” then “the institutional structure of the modern university, and its oversight by administrators, politicians and boards of trustees, are inessential to what it is.” This is because the “fundamental core” of what constitutes a university is, and has long been, “the guild of scholars dedicated to the activity of universal learning.” Universities, from this perspective, are not firms with owners and employees. But that was not how Simon Newman saw it when he demoted the provost and summarily fired two faculty members, one with tenure, who questioned his policies.
Simon Newman’s idea of a university is fundamentally different than Cardinal Newman’s. Rather than emphasize the university’s Catholic traditions and commitment to liberal arts education, the president has allegedly asked why so many crucifixes are on the campus. While that might just be a matter of taste, he has also purportedly complained that the "liberal arts doesn't sell." He has expressed his desire to reduce the number of core courses and increase the number of degrees with market value.
Mount St. Mary’s website offers no indication that the university is committed to the intellectual culture of its students. The lead page (as of yesterday) extols Mount St. Mary’s not as a place for the mind but as one “in the middle of everything.” A university is not a place apart, but a gateway to internships in D.C. and rock climbing and paddle boarding. Click on the button “Learn Here” and the first thing one sees is “BizHack, where students and professionals collaborate to create entrepreneurial business plans for products and services for the future.”
This is an institution that appears to be oriented not to students’ minds but to their pocketbooks. It’s not even clear that it has a liberal arts mission. Indeed, click on the button “Succeed Anywhere,” and the university does not talk about students becoming better people or citizens, but getting better jobs at leading firms.
In a letter that Mr. Newman recently emailed to parents in response to the growing controversy over his comments about drowning bunnies and his dismissal of faculty members, he sought to reassure the Mount St. Mary’s community that he is on the side of progress. The university is “in growth mode, and on the move. We are transforming our 200-year-old Catholic university to meet the needs of a demanding global economy. Your student is a part of this exciting transformation. We are building on our existing liberal arts core and Catholic intellectual tradition and preparing students for a more technical skills-based job market in a way that only the Mount can.”
Thus, in the tale of two Newmans, we can see many of the questions that remain at the heart of much broader conversations about higher education. What is the role of faith in college education? What is the relationship between teaching and research? What ought to constitute a university education? Should universities focus on the intellectual development of their students, or cater to students’ economic aspirations and the needs of employers? Does something set a university apart from other institutions?
Both Newmans grappled with how to define the essence of university education during historical moments when universities were -- and are -- under pressure to modernize to meet the needs of a changing society and to justify what they do. They both thus offer us a chance to reflect on where we have been, where we are and where we might want to go next.
By the time a new president greets the faculty or grants the first media interview, he or she has probably experienced professional and personal upheaval. Scott D. Miller offers advice for ways to make it all go smoother.