A Tale of Two Newmans

Both Cardinal Newman and Simon Newman have struggled with how to define the essence of university education during challenging historical moments for higher education, writes Johann N. Neem.

February 16, 2016

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.


Johann N. Neem is professor of history at Western Washington University and a visiting faculty fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia. He is author of Taking It to the Streets: Preparing for an Academy in Exile.


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