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.
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