February 29, 2016; Washington Post
A few weeks ago, NPQ covered the story of some questionable acts by the then-president of Mount St Mary’s University, the second-oldest Catholic university in the country. Apparently, Simon Newman had concocted a survey to be administered to freshmen as a “personal self-development tool” in an attempt to weed out the less motivated before retention rates were to start being measured. This would formally boost the school’s numbers. The scheme, and some comments Newman has admitted to making, eventually came to light through the campus newspaper.
The comments to an objecting faculty member went something like this: “This is hard for you because you think of the students as cuddly bunnies, but you can’t. You just have to drown the bunnies…put a Glock to their heads.” (For his part, Newman claims to have been misquoted; the fuzzy animals under threat were allegedly puppies, not bunnies.)
Newman then went on to fire two faculty members, including the student newspaper’s advisor, prompting an outcry among academic freedom advocates.
After first having expressed steadfast support for Newman, by the middle of February, the trustees were expressing regret for a “breakdown in compassionate communication and collaboration that we have all witnessed in the past few weeks.” They announced a rapidly developed listening tour, saying that “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.”
Maybe not so coincidentally, the board was informed that the school’s accreditation, which had just been reaffirmed at the beginning of last summer, with its next scheduled review report in 2020, was suddenly called up for review. Clearly this heightened the stakes and any blinders that might still have been on were torn off. Apparently, the Middle States Commission on Higher Education requested “a supplemental information report, due March 15, 2016, addressing recent developments at the University which may have implications for continued compliance with Requirement of Affiliation #9, Standard 4 (Leadership and Governance), Standard 6 (Integrity), Standard 8 (Student Admissions and Retention), and Standard 10 (Faculty).”
As some noted, these standards are the ones that might have been threatened by the recent tumult.
In an email Thursday, Elizabeth H. Sibolski, the president of the Middle States Commission, said:
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We are asking that the requested report focus on one requirement of affiliation and the four accreditation standards that seemed most closely related to the situation as reported.
The supplemental information report allows the institution to provide information directly to the Commission. […] The institution’s report will be considered by one of the Commission’s standing committees prior to further consideration and action by the full Commission.
The trustees met on February 29th, the same day that Newman issued the kind of statement required of those who have blown through their relationships with a particular institution.
“I am proud of what I have been able to achieve in a relatively short time particularly in helping the University chart a clear course toward a bright future,” Newman said in a statement Monday evening. “I care deeply about the school and the recent publicity relating to my leadership has become too great of a distraction to our mission of educating students. It was a difficult decision but I believe it is the right course of action for the Mount at this time.”
The chair of the board, John Coyne, issued a statement of his own.
The board is grateful to President Newman for his many accomplishments over the past year, including strengthening the University’s finances, developing a comprehensive strategic plan for our future, and bringing many new ideas to campus that have benefited the entire Mount community. We thank him for his service.
We think that we have read both these statements before.
And everyone moves along with the ethics of the situation not clearly considered publicly by the trustees. We would like to see that—not to punish Newman, but to ensure that there is a full reconciliation with stakeholders.—Ruth McCambridge