The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Amid national backlash, Mount St. Mary’s president defends his tenure in letter to parents

Mount St. Mary’s University in Maryland (Photo courtesy of Mount St. Mary’s)
Placeholder while article actions load

The president of Mount St. Mary’s University defended his tenure at the private college in Maryland in a letter to parents on Wednesday, and he said he had taken “the high road” despite intense public scrutiny of his recent actions.

After two professors were fired Monday — one tenured, one who had been the adviser to the student newspaper when articles critical of the president, Simon Newman, were published — a heated backlash spread not just on campus but nationally. The move was seen by many as retribution for faculty members who had opposed Newman, and a violation of academic freedom. Several national groups criticized it, and a petition calling for the professors’ reinstatement has gotten more than 6,000 digital signatures since it was posted Tuesday.

Newman was a divisive figure on campus before he fired anyone, in large part because he has a vision for the university’s future that would dramatically change it. As he and others at the school have said repeatedly, change can be hard.

And some of Newman’s policies have drawn alarm on campus. Newman was quoted in the student newspaper as saying, in a private conversation with colleagues about his plan to usher out 20 to 25 freshmen early in the fall semester as part of an effort to improve the retention rate at the liberal-arts school, that there would be collateral damage. He said a professor needed to stop thinking of freshmen as cuddly bunnies.

President Simon Newman of Mount St. Mary's University in Emmitsburg, Md., has announced his resignation after the school received national attention in response to the firing of two professors. Here's what you need to know about the evolving controversy. (Video: Monica Akhtar, Ashleigh Joplin, Deirdra O'Regan/The Washington Post)

“You just have to drown the bunnies … put a Glock to their heads,” he said, in a conversation confirmed by The Washington Post.

University president says struggling freshmen are bunnies that should be drowned

When he was appointed president of the 2,300-student private Catholic university in 2015, he had no experience in higher education, but he had decades of success in finance. He had ambitious plans for the school in Emmitsburg, Md., including doubling the enrollment, modernizing the curriculum, requiring fewer core courses, ensuring students left with marketable degrees. Some saw those ideas as upending the very identity of a small, nurturing, Catholic, liberal arts college.

He brought in consultants. He announced an abrupt cut to retirement benefits.

To some, those changes were much-needed. To others, it felt destructive.

His language shocked some. Newman acknowledged swearing too much, but some were upset by his tone, too — as when he referred to “Catholic jihadists” on campus, or seemed to disparage, in blunt words, students who were having trouble academically.

In one example, he told a group of alumni, according to a couple of people who were present: “Twenty-five percent of our students are dumb and lazy and I’d like to get rid of them.”

Controversy at Mount St. Mary’s goes national after professors are fired

It was language more suited to the corporate world, some professors and alumni said, than to a university founded on Christian principles.

So the idea of encouraging some students to leave before the date when enrollment data is reported to the federal government — potentially improving retention rates — didn’t come in a vacuum.

In an email exchange, first reported by the Mountain Echo and later obtained by the Post last month, in which the former provost questioned a survey about to be administered to all freshmen on their first day, Newman wrote:

“My short term goal is to have 20-25 people leave by the 25th.  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.”

When that was forwarded to a dean, the emailed response included, “… Simon clarified a goal: to dismiss some students. This new bit of information is deeply disturbing. I already thought this survey was ill-conceived, on many levels. But if one of the intended uses is to identify students to dismiss, I think it is unethical. How can we in good conscience administer this?”

After the Echo story ran, Newman told the Post some of his language was regrettable but that the student newspaper had presented a distorted picture of his plan. He wrote an explanation of his goals, his intention to help identify students who are struggling in the crucial early weeks of college, and his offer to refund their tuition if they chose to leave early in the semester. He explained that he felt a moral obligation to ensure that students who would ultimately decide college was not for them not to spend thousands of dollars on that mistake.

Mount St. Mary’s president explains his multi-pronged effort to retain more students

Some students and faculty were shocked and upset by the story. But others — most prominently, the board chairman — were angry that a private conversation had been made public, and felt that a small group of professors and student journalists were tarring the Mount name.

Newman, who graduated from Cambridge University and earned his MBA from Stanford, went to a faculty meeting soon after the story broke and seemed deeply and sincerely sorry for his remarks, according to a professor who was there.

The board chairman has strongly defended Newman and his goals and told the campus the board he had conducted a “forensic” investigation after the Echo story.

Last week, David Rehm, the provost who had questioned Newman’s retention plan, was demoted (he remains on the faculty.) On Monday, Thane Naberhaus, a philosophy professor who has been critical of Newman, was fired and banned from campus.

So was Edward Egan, a former trustee, an alumnus and son of an alumnus, and director of the pre-law program who was the adviser to the student newspaper.

“I’m heartbroken,” Egan said Wednesday.

Egan is “someone with the utmost integrity,” said John Foley, a 2006 graduate. “He is a graduate of the Mount and cares for the Mount in a way that only other graduates can truly appreciate. I know he holds the Mount in high esteem and only wishes the best for its future.” He wrote in an email that Egan, along with Naberhaus and Rehm  “are what has always made the Mount what it is. … I truly worry about the future of the Mount. Even if there is a future, I wonder if it will resemble the place us Mounties all love.”

Joseph Baldacchino, a 1970 graduate, like others, wrote to the Archbishop of Baltimore with his concerns for the soul of the university.

“Mount St. Mary’s is not just a university. It is a holy place where saints have trod,” he wrote in an email to The Post. “The Mount is not a business, let alone a hedge fund. It is a sacred institution consecrated to one purpose: the furtherance of the good, the true, and the beautiful. It is the loving work of many generations. … “Mount St. Mary’s is, in other words, a sacred trust.”

On Wednesday afternoon, shortly before Newman held a confidential meeting with faculty, a letter from him was emailed out:

Dear Mount Parents,
Mount St. Mary’s University is in growth mode, and on the move.  We are transforming our 200-year-old Catholic University to meet the needs of a demanding global economy.  Your student is a part of this exciting transformation.  We are building on our existing Liberal Arts core and Catholic Intellectual Tradition and preparing students for a more technical skills-based job market in a way that only The Mount can.  Talk to any of our alums, and they will tell you how Mount Priests humanized our faith, and helped them grow into the people they are today.  At The Mount, our true differentiator is and always has been the formation and the creation of the Mount Person, a person of character, of confidence, of wisdom, and of faith.
Over Christmas break, we asked our current students what they would like to see more of at The Mount.  Well, they were very vocal, and their needs matched those of the guidance counselors, high school seniors and parents, that we also surveyed during this time.  Your daughters and sons are attuned to what the job market has to offer and the skills they will need to have, in order to ensure a great career in whatever field they choose.  We are going to share some of the results of our research with them in the next few weeks.
Remaining aligned with what the World needs requires change.  Change is hard, and requires not only new thinking, but new ways of preparing students – now both inside the classroom, and through experiential learning opportunities.
I want to briefly address my decision to dismiss two faculty members who violated a number of our University policies and our code of ethics. We, as an institution, have received quite a bit of press recently and have chosen not to respond more forcefully with information about the specifics of their conduct which we have available to us. In keeping with our values, we will take the high road.  But it is critical that you know that we would never undertake actions like that unless the conduct in question warranted it.  You may see other versions of events, but we have chosen to restore our focus on educating your students rather than explaining the damaging actions of a few individuals. We need to move forward with hope and faith rather than fall prey to fear and disparity during this time of transition.
I am a father. My heart knows just who you have entrusted to our care.  The education, safety, and ultimate future of your son or daughter is at the heart of why I am here and what I love about the Mount.
Follow our progress, see our university thrive with growth in its third century, but please know as a parent, that we are providing your student with a caring, welcoming, and academically strong environment.  Students impacted by faculty changes will receive communication regarding their advising and class schedules.
For specific questions and concerns, please reach out to the Office of the Provost
Yours in Christ,
President Simon Newman