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University president allegedly says struggling freshmen are bunnies that should be drowned

In this file photo from May 2010, new graduates of the Mount St. Mary’s Seminary enter the back of the Immaculate Conception Chapel for a class photo.(Photo by Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)

Amid a conversation about student retention this fall, the president of Mount St. Mary’s University told some professors that they need to stop thinking of freshmen as “cuddly bunnies,” and said: “You just have to drown the bunnies … put a Glock to their heads.”

Simon Newman was quoted in the campus newspaper, The Mountain Echo, on Tuesday, in a special edition that reported the university’s president had pushed a plan to improve retention rates by dismissing 20 to 25 freshmen judged unlikely to succeed early in the academic year. Removing students who are more likely to drop out could hypothetically lead to an improvement in a school’s federal retention data; the deadline for submitting enrollment data is in late September.

Newman, a private-equity chief executive officer and entrepreneur who was appointed president of the private university in Emmitsburg, Md., in 2015, said Tuesday that there are some accurate facts in the Echo story, but “the overall tone of the thing is highly inaccurate.”

“The inferences, the innuendo, it’s not accurate at all — the conclusions one would naturally draw from reading it,” Newman said in an interview with The Washington Post. He described an intensive, multi-pronged effort to improve retention rates, because the school loses 20 to 25 percent of its first-year students. School administrators, he said, want to be sure their customers, the students, are successful.

He 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.'”

It wasn’t indicative of the retention program, he said, or the move to make the university “student-centric.”

A professor who was part of the conversation The Echo quoted confirmed to The Post that the quotes were accurate.

Newman, who earned his liberal arts undergraduate degree with honors from Cambridge and his MBA from Stanford, was described by a former administrator as bringing a blunt, analytical business perspective to the management of the school. Most small private colleges feel enrollment pressure; Mount St. Mary’s has about 2,300 students.

“We need to grow,” Newman said. “I’d like to see us double the size of the university in the next 10 years.”

To do that, he said, the school must be very responsive to what students and employers are seeking, adding programs such as cyber security, questioning whether languages such as French and German are as critical as Chinese and Arabic, and shifting the focus from “internal constituents” to students.

“Change is hard,” he said. Coming in after a longtime president, “I wasn’t brought into the school to keep things the same. I was brought in to take it to the next level.”

The Mountain Echo reporters wrote that Newman’s retention plan included administering a survey to all freshmen, with this introduction: “This year, we are going to start the Veritas Symposium by providing you with a very valuable tool that will help you discover more about yourself. This survey has been developed by a leadership team here at The Mount, and it is based on some of the leading thinking in the area of personal motivation and key factors that determine motivation, success, and happiness. We will ask you some questions about yourself that we would like you to answer as honestly as possible. There are no wrong answers.”

But the paper reported on an email exchange that expressed a desire to eliminate a certain number of students, based on the survey results, by the Sept. 25 cutoff date when the university would be required to report enrollment numbers to the federal government.

The plan, the paper reported, sparked strong pushback from some members of the faculty and the administration.

An email from Newman, the paper reported, explained: “My short term goal is to have 20-25 people leave by the 25th [of Sep.]. This one thing will boost our retention 4-5%. A larger committee or group needs to work on the details but I think you get the objective.”

Several people included in the email exchange did not respond to the Post’s requests for comment Tuesday.

After an assembly in September at which the results of the survey were discussed with students, Newman spoke with some staff and faculty members, said John Larrivee, an associate professor of economics who was part of the conversation. The president asked a professor to come up with a list of students unlikely to make it based on performance in the first few weeks, and was told they didn’t have enough information to know that. One of the goals of the symposium was to help ease students’ transition to college, and with this proposal they might be kicking out some students who would be successful.

Newman responded that “there will be some collateral damage.”

He also said, as first reported by the Echo and confirmed by Larrivee, that “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.”

Larrivee said faculty members have discussed Newman’s blunt manner, which can be jarring in academia. He said he tried to think of it as a situation in which someone had analyzed a situation, identified a problem and saw a solution.

“I could see, from a business person’s perspective, some merit in helping students realize early that this is not the best place for them,” Larrivee said. “But for the Mount, we care deeply about all our students and it would have to be done out of concern for them. Thus our first duty is to our students and for anyone who comes within our circle,” to express, in effect, “we’re glad that you’ve come, we certainly hope that you’ll stay, but if it turns out you’ve come and decided it’s not appropriate for you, we want to help you, out of love, realize that it’s not right for you.”

No students were identified as a result of the survey, the Echo reported, and no students dismissed as a result.

The chairman of the board of trustees, who did not respond to requests for comment from The Post on Tuesday, wrote a letter to the editor of the Echo in December, which the paper published Tuesday. 

The Echo reported that Newman wrote in an email to the campus community on Dec. 22: “It has never been a goal to ‘kick out’ first year students because they were not doing well.”

Newman said that in the past, faculty members would reach out to students who seemed to be struggling after six weeks, perhaps referring them to counseling or academic help. But the research indicates that six weeks into school might be too late, he said, because students might have already decided they’re not in the right place by then.

School administrators decided to do much more to try to identify students who weren’t happy early on, by tracking things such as whether they were going to events on campus, whether they were attending classes and eating meals, and they created the survey, Newman said. Then he envisioned, for those who seemed to be struggling or withdrawn, “a more serious intervention, a come-to-Jesus meeting, as it were. ‘We noticed you haven’t responded to the help — is this really right for you?’ Have this honest-to-God conversation then.”

That talk, he said, that they may be happier at Towson or a community college, could also save students money. Twenty-three students were dismissed for academic reasons over the winter break, he said, with a lot more debt than they would have incurred had they left earlier for a place that was a better fit.

He said to paint all their retention efforts as just trying to dismiss people “is a complete mischaracterization of the entire program.”

The Echo’s editor did not immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday; the newspaper’s adviser praised the students’ hard work. Leaders of student government referred questions to the university spokesperson.

The school, the second-oldest Catholic university in the country, prides itself on being a nurturing place, as it proclaims on its website: “The Mount is a community where doors are held open by people you never met but who soon become your best friends. The people at the Mount genuinely care for you, they care that you succeed, whether inside or outside of the classroom. They care about your family and friends. They care about your classes that you are taking, your job interviews and your applications to graduate school. They care what you are doing now and ten years into the future.”