Mount St. Mary's president in hot water over professors' firing

President Simon Newman at Mount St. Mary’s University is facing criticism for firing two professors after they questioned his controversial retention plan, which would cut the lowest performing students from the incoming freshmen class within the first month of the semester.

Details of the retention plan were initially published in The Mountain Echo, the school’s official publication. The Echo report revealed that Newman planned to “cull” low performing students within the first month of the semester in order to improve the school’s retention numbers.

Mount St. Mary’s University, like all universities, is required by federal law to submit a report each semester with the number of students enrolled. At the start of the next academic year, the number of remaining students is then compared to the number submitted in the initial report. The federal government assigns each school a “retention rate” based on the number of freshmen students who remained at the university.

In order to improve Mount St. Mary’s retention rate, Newman developed a plan to “cull the class” by identifying the lowest performing students and dismissing them from the incoming class.

To carry this out, the university asked incoming students to take an hour long survey during a freshmen orientation. The survey addressed students’ interests and asked them about their personal goals and expectations at the university.

On Jul. 27, Dr. Greg Murry, director of an on-campus program known as the Veritas Symposium, sent an email to his fellow faculty members informing them that the president’s office asked for the survey to be administered during an upcoming orientation.

“On the request of the President’s office, students will be taking about an hour’s worth of the time to fill out a survey [on Sat. Aug. 22 during orientation] which we hope will help us to develop better advanced metrics for accepting students,” Murry wrote in his email.

On the evening of Aug. 21, the day before the survey was to be administered, Provost David Rehm emailed Newman to say he was “deeply concerned … on several fronts.”

“As we plan on some version of this for the coming year, I believe that there needs to be more heads in the game to address the many challenges here,” Rehm wrote to Newman.

That night, Newman informed Rehm he would be moving ahead with the survey in an email exchange that confirms Newman planned to cut up to 25 students from the class before the start of the semester.

“I believe we should move ahead and ask the questions but we have time to discuss how the results will be fed back to students …. my short term goal is to have 20-25 people leave by the 25th [of Sep.]. This one thing will boost our retention by 4-5%. A larger committee or group needs to work on the details but I think you get the objective,” Newman wrote.

The email exchange was obtained exclusively by The Echo.

Rehm shared the email with a few faculty members who were concerned the language of the survey would mislead incoming students. The survey allegedly stated that “there are no wrong answers” even though the results would be used to cut students from the class.

On Sept. 21, after the survey was administered, Newman met privately with a group of faculty members to discuss their concerns with the survey. At the meeting, Murry questioned the ethical merit of the survey.

“This is hard for you because you think of the students as cuddly bunnies, but you can’t,” Newman replied. “You just have to drown the bunnies … put a Glock to their heads.”

A Washington Post investigation confirmed the veracity of the comment, but Newman told The Chronicle of Higher Education that the comment was taken out of context.

Professor Thane Naberhaus, a tenured associate professor of philosophy, has also allegedly criticized the administration’s retention plan in a few faculty meetings.

On Friday, Newman sent an email to all faculty members stating he had asked for, and received, Rehm’s letter of resignation. He remains on the faculty but was replaced by an interim provost.

On Monday, Edward Egan, faculty adviser to The Echo, was fired.

At the same time, Naberhaus was fired for unspecified reasons.

On the day he was fired, Naberhaus said a campus security officer delivered a letter to him at his desk signed by the president, confiscated his computer, and escorted him to his car. The letter stated that Naberhaus broke “a duty of loyalty” to the university and that his recent, unspecified actions violated that duty.

“Further, because of your conduct and its impact on the university, you have been designated persona non grata. As such, you are not welcome to visit the university’s campus or to attend any university activities or sporting events on the university’s property. Failure to comply with this directive will result in legal proceedings,” the letter went on.

Thousands of professors have come to the defense of Naberhaus and Egan, who were never given the opportunity to appear before a faculty committee or the governing board of the university.

The Board of Trustees did, however, issue a statement in response to concerns over Newman’s retention program in which they claim to have “found incontrovertible evidence of the existence of an organized, small group of faculty and recent alums working to undermine and ultimately cause the exit of President Newman.” They added that the university would “hold those individuals accountable for these actions.”

In a letter to the campus newspaper, Chair John Coyne accused the student journalists of offering a “grossly inaccurate impression” of Newman’s retention plan.

But Naberhaus and Egan’s fellow academics are claiming “these faculty were fired without any academic due process as required under AAUP [American Association of University Professors] guidelines and the customary standards of tenure.”

Nearly 5,000 faculty members from various universities across the country sent a letter to Newman in protest of his decision to fire Naberhaus and Egan.

“The manner and circumstance of their dismissal raise serious questions about the respect given to moral conscience and intellectual freedom at Mount St. Mary’s … as a Catholic Institution, Mount St. Mary’s is bound by the teachings that ‘charity always proceeds by way of respect for one’s neighbor and his conscience’ and that in the context of the Catholic university ‘the freedom of conscience of each person is to be fully respected,’” the letter states.

The “ Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure” put forth by the American Association of University Professors ensures faculty the right to “speak or write as citizens” who are “free from institutional censorship or discipline.”

When a tenured faculty member is called into question, the AAUP asks that the case of each professor “be considered by both a faculty committee and the governing board of the institution.”

“In all cases where the facts are in dispute, the accused teacher should be informed before the hearing in writing of the charges and should have the opportunity to be heard in his or her own defense by all bodies that pass judgment upon the case,” the AAUP adds.

As of now, neither Naberhaus nor Egan have been given the opportunity to testify or defend themselves before any committee or governing board.

Many student reporters at the Echo have come to the defense of their professors

“I am deeply saddened and appalled at what has happened here over the past few days,” said Rebecca Schisler, news editor at the Echo. “The men that were fired were some of the best mentors and professors I have ever known.”

Newman continues to defend his retention plan, saying “it has never been a goal to ‘kick out’ first year students because they were not doing well.”

The university also released a statement that said Naberhaus “was terminated because his actions violated multiple university policies” and not because he was expressing “differing views from those of the administration.”

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @AGockowski