Mount St. Mary’s president should be fired

Another day, another crisis in shared governance. This time the crisis has roiled Mount St. Mary’s University, a small private, liberal arts, Catholic university in Emmitsburg, Maryland. Mount St. Mary’s hired Simon Newman, a former private equity director, as president in December, 2014. He had no experience in higher education but at the time of his hiring said his career gave him experience in fundraising, marketing, and strategic planning. In recent days, the campus has erupted in controversy with a plan to weed out likely to fail students, firing faculty critics, and forcing the resignation of the provost. There is only one appropriate conclusion to this episode, Mount St. Mary’s president should be fired.

Photo credit: Mount St. Mary’s

It is attractive to small universities that struggle financially to recruit a powerful business executive with a history of raising money. After all, the institution desperately needs fiscal stability. However, especially at small universities, presidents must be able to successfully navigate the faculty and academic responsibilities of the institution.

Clearly, Mr. Newman has failed on this front.

If I served as one of the university’s trustees, I would immediately move to fire Simon Newman and for cause.

Specifically, there are at least three causes to justify his termination (likely, there are far more, but these are the most egregious):

1. Retention plan to drive out unsuccessful students

I have advised students to leave academic programs. It is a tough conversation, but there are times where someone is not going to be successful. I believe it is far more humane to give someone good advice than let them spend their time and money in a program where they aren’t going to be able to do the work. President Newman’s plan was to give students a survey, tell them there are no wrong answers, and then use their responses to drum out 20-25 students that were not likely to be successful.

The questions included items related to depression, finances and other issues where universities should provide support not just run students off. I don’t know if the survey was illegal, but it was definitely immoral.

2. Think of them like bunnies

Critics raised concerns regarding Newman’s plan and the survey leading to one of the worst higher education quotes that I’ve ever read:

“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.”

There are multiple witnesses that confirm President Newman said this. He should have been cleaning out his office by the end of the day.

3. Firing faculty critics

Rather than acknowledging the terrible idea of the survey and removing students, Newman made the crisis worse. He asked for the provost’s resignation. As near as I can tell, the only problem with the provost was that he tried to convince Newman that his plan was terrible and that faculty would revolt. Clearly, the advice was spot on regarding what would happen if his advice was ignored.

The faculty advisor of the student newspaper (that broke the news) and a tenured faculty member critical of the president were both fired. The tenured faculty member was not given due process or other appeal rights as should be followed when terminating a tenured member of the faculty. Instead of apologizing for a poor decision, the president doubled down by firing his critics. When will presidents learn?

The only person who should be fired is Simon Newman

Simon Newman should be fired for cause. He failed to support his students and faculty. He failed to uphold the Catholic mission of the university. He made a really stupid decision and then fired those who dared suggest that the decision was bad. He needs to go and immediately.

To do anything less threatens the very foundation of Mount St. Mary’s.

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