The Mount at a Crossroads

The world of Catholic higher education—and indeed, the worlds of Catholicism, of higher education, and simply the world in general—got welcome news Monday evening when it was announced that Simon Newman, lately the controversial ex-financier President of Mount St. Mary's University (see my earlier posts here, here, and here), "resigned" in the wake of several weeks of intense public scrutiny over his actions.

Announcing his departure in a statement released by the University, Newman wrote:

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. 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.

Newman's pride in his tenure was echoed by the Board of Trustees, whose Chairman, John E. Coyne, wrote in that same statement of his gratitude to 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 benefitted the entire Mount community." Few details on these alleged accomplishments—especially the claimed improvement in the University's finances—seem to have been provided so far. 

While some of this congratulatory rhetoric is a matter of course, other signs from the Board's reaction to this development suggest that they really may have failed to draw the obvious lessons from Newman's failed tenure as president. Consider, for example, the following report in this morning's Frederick News-Post:

Leaders at Mount St. Mary’s University intend to proceed with the vision of its embattled former president, Simon Newman, who resigned Monday after his vitriolic comments and philosophy on student retention thrust the school into the national spotlight. [...]

In March, Newman was brought in by the Mount’s board of trustees, which was impressed by Newman’s pitch to impose sweeping changes, alleviate financial stress and expand the university’s enrollment and course offerings, a plan known as “Mount 2.0.”

In interviews, board of trustees members have said they intend to continue working on Mount 2.0. They said faculty has shown support for the plan.

Newman was to implement this transformation, hailing from a corporate background, with more than 30 years in private equity and management consulting. He holds a Master of Business Administration degree from Stanford University and founded multiple companies.

That "corporate background" led, as described in a detailed postmortem today in the Chronicle of Higher Education, to Newman's approaching his role with an "an antiseptic view of the world," wherein the human costs of his decisions were irrelevant. Thus any promising students who might be dismissed through his infamous "drown the bunnies" program were "collateral damage" in a policy designed to improve the school's rankings; thus long-time staff and administrators could be fired without stated cause by being given a termination letter, a security escort, and five minutes to erase their phone and gather their personal belongings; thus retired faculty and staff (some of whom had worked decades at poor hourly wages) could be denied a promised retirement benefit because the university needed the money for other things. The Chronicle report fills out some background on that last story:

In November,...the president acknowledged that he had moved forward with a plan to cut employees' health-care and retirement benefits without first consulting the relevant faculty committees, an email obtained by The Chronicle shows. Besides, Mr. Newman said, the professors were sure to oppose the changes anyway.

"I have tried repeatedly to indicate that our financial situation is too precarious to allow that kind of time," Mr. Newman wrote to the leaders of the university's Faculty Governance Committee. "A decision had to be made."

There is no word yet on whether considerations of austerity were similarly prominent in making the decision to provide Newman his pre-negotiated severance package after he announced his resignation. Once again, no one on the outside is privy to the details of that.

What's most galling, however, is the failure by Newman and the Board to come to terms with, or even simply acknowledge, the breaches of trust at the center of in his most controversial actions: the plan to cull at-risk freshmen in order to improve the Mount's self-reported retention rate; and the dismissal of two faculty members for what was described as their "disloyalty" to the university. (To be clear, in my view the denial of benefits to retirees deserves to have been just as controversial as these.) Concerning the first incident, where Newman made headlines for describing students as "bunnies" who needed to be drowned or shot in the head, the full extent of Newman's acknowledgment that anything went wrong are the following lines published in the Washington Post:

[Newman] said he didn’t remember exactly what he said in the conversation that was quoted, but acknowledged he has sometimes used language that was regrettable.

“I’ve probably done more swearing here than anyone else,” Newman said. “It wasn’t intended to be anything other than, ‘Some of these conversations you may need to have with people are hard.'”

While the Board of Trustees claimed in a statement that Newman "apologized" for his use of an "inappropriate metaphor," the above statement at least does no such thing. Nor, more importantly, does the statement address what the metaphor was used to describe, namely a plan to dismiss from college, within a few weeks of their arrival on campus, freshmen deemed unlikely to succeed—and to do this on the basis of an allegedly confidential survey, presented to the students as a tool for self-discovery and asking personal (and possibly illegal) questions about their emotional health and family finances, which in fact was a way for the administration to "gather better information" in order to identify which of these new arrivals "were not on a success track." It is simply chilling to think that students, who took this survey over freshmen orientation, could be misled in this way into revealing their deepest selves to a group of university administrators. Yet Newman has never admitted that there was anything amiss with the plan, and the Board described the effort as "a program with great intent and full consistency with our Catholic values that was beset by several start-up implementation problems." Coupled with the above, none of this gives the impression of a desire to find a new president who will be significantly different, except perhaps in the propriety of his metaphors.

The same goes for the firing of the "disloyal" faculty, who were not afforded any of the due process recommended by the AAUP. The Board of Trustees' "investigation" of these faculty members involved reading their private e-mails; and they were let go in the same ignominious way described above: each was handed a letter, given a few minutes to gather his things, and escorted by campus security to his car. Firing faculty members in this way is not something that is done at any serious university, which is why the reaction from the scholarly community to the news of these firings was so swift and severe. Yet Newman had the gall to frame his reinstatement of the faculty members as an act of "mercy" and a step toward "reconciliation and healing," implying that there was something less than justice involved in walking back an action that it was never his right to perform. Once again, there is no apology here—no acknowledgment that bounds were overstepped, trust broken, lives thrown into disarray and very nearly ruined. Simon Newman is proud of his achievements, and the Chairman of the Board is grateful for them.

In order for Mount St. Mary's—where my wife and I taught for years, where our friends still work and teach, where our stillborn son is buried in the cemetery down the road—to find reconciliation and healing in the wake of this fiasco, a much clearer break will be needed with the actions of the man who brought it to this crossroads. (Not just the words: the actions.) This will likely require changes in the composition of the Board of Trustees. It will certainly require an open acknowledgement of where the previous administration went wrong, a serious accounting of what led to this, sincere apologies for the harms done, and earnest attempts to repair the broken trust. This is a tall order, but it is much more pressing, and infinitely more important, than any polite gratitude owed to Simon Newman, or any plans the Board may have to continue on the course toward Mount 2.0.

John Schwenkler is an associate professor in the Department of Philosophy at Florida State University.

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