Last week, the student newspaper at Mount St. Mary’s University, the Mountain Echo, reported that its president had pushed to identify freshmen at risk of dropping out early in the semester, and encourage them to leave college before they would affect the university’s retention rate. According to two professors, during an informal conversation at which some people expressed concern about the plan and whether they would be dismissing students who could be successful in college, the president, Simon Newman, told a small group that “there will be some collateral damage” and 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.”
Newman told The Post that he didn’t remember his exact words, but has used some “regrettable” language at times and said he merely meant to convey that they would need to have some hard conversations with students. The campus paper distorted his overall intention, he said, and he wrote an opinion piece explaining his plan to keep more students enrolled.
Not everyone was reassured. Krista Threefoot — who graduated from the private Catholic university in 2001 with the Edward J. Flanagan Memorial prize for scholarship, conduct, and leadership and the Leo T. Collier prize for achievement in the study of English or journalism, went on to earn a master’s degree in international development policy from a joint program between Georgetown University and La Universidad Nacional de San Martin in Buenos Aires, and now works as a writer — was alarmed by the news. She writes her opinion here.
By Krista Threefoot
For graduates of a tiny liberal arts college that hardly anyone knows about, it’s always exciting to see your alma mater’s name in the international news.
Except, of course, when it’s in the news for doing something you think is completely unethical — something even Donald Trump might consider shady — in complete defiance of everything the school has stood for over a span of 200 years.
Yesterday my news feed was flooded with stories of my beloved alma mater, Mt. St. Mary’s University, and not one of them was good.
During the last decade, Mt. St. Mary’s has changed drastically from the school I knew. It is no longer a college but a university. It has moved away from its intellectual, liberal arts focus toward a more business-minded emphasis. The school wanted more prestige and needed to make more money. And so things had to change. The leadership steered the school away from its traditional values into a realm more fitting for a corporation seeking to expand its profit margins.
Consider the news that came out of Mt. St. Mary’s yesterday. According to the school’s newspaper, the Mountain Echo, and a later article published in The Washington Post, the newly appointed president of the university created a freshman questionnaire purportedly to “help students discover more about themselves,” which was to be used instead to cull students whose responses labeled them as being at-risk, with the goal of improving the school’s retention rates.
Higher education institutions are required to submit to the federal government the total number of students enrolled each semester. This number is then used to calculate the freshman retention rate, which is a factor that contributes to many students’ college selections. If a large chunk of a class’s population drops out after the first year, it could indicate something rotten in the state of Denmark.
Mt. St. Mary’s president, Simon Newman, had the bright idea that if the school got rid of students who were destined to fail anyway before they had to calculate and submit their enrollment numbers, then the retention rate would be higher. Voila! And the best part — he’d actually be doing those students a service by saving them the wasted money of a semester’s tuition, room, and board.
When discussing this matter with faculty — who as a whole do not seem to support this plan — Newman urged them not to think of freshmen as “cuddly bunnies” with this charming metaphor: “You just have to drown the bunnies … put a Glock to their heads.”
Because in a bunny-eat-bunny kind of world, you have to take out the runts before they get devoured.
Tough love has its merits, or so they say. I’m not very good at it myself.
But injustice is injustice, and that is what we are facing here.
You can’t establish the certainty that a student will fail based on a survey he takes during freshman orientation. In fact, you can’t be certain a student will fail until they actually fail. You can’t treat a group of kids embarking on the educational journey that will shape their future like a herd of cattle being fattened for the market.
It’s disturbing to me that any group of leaders directing a university could think this way.
But what is worse, in my opinion, is that this decision came from a Catholic college that has always prided itself not only on its commitment to academic excellence but also on the strength of its community.
The community at the Mount is, or was, its greatest asset. When I was a student, we knew our professors personally. They took us out for beers and invited us into their homes. I babysat their kids. They treated us like equals, encouraging our curiosity and fostering our intellectual growth.
The community I was a part of helped freshman — and sophomores and juniors and seniors — who were struggling academically.
They helped us when we were struggling personally. They invested in us.
A small minority of students failed or left for other reasons, but at least they had a fair chance.
The community I was a part of was, in the most powerful sense of the word, a community. We had a shared identity that united us and defined us. And for me, having been part of that community continues to shape who I am today, nearly 15 years after my graduation.
The older I get, the more I realize how vital it is for me to be a part of something larger than myself. I used to imagine that I would find my greatest fulfillment as a globe-trotting idealist, saving the world from itself.
Now, I know that my happiness is as deep as the roots I have formed. I have the Mount to thank for that.
The direction President Newman is taking Mt. St. Mary’s is the wrong one and his methods are unconscionable. It needs to be stopped.