Amid a national controversy over academic freedom, the faculty of Mount St. Mary’s University voted overwhelmingly Friday afternoon to ask President Simon Newman to resign.
In an 87-to-3 vote, the faculty in a letter asked Newman to step down by Monday morning. The faculty stopped short of a no-confidence vote, something that had been discussed during the week, choosing to ask for resignation instead.
The resolution came after weeks of turmoil on the Maryland campus, with a heated debate over how to treat new students who are at risk of dropping out — with the school’s president using language that many found brutal — and terminated faculty members who became symbols of free speech to some and disloyalty to others.
In an email Friday afternoon, David McCarthy, secretary to the faculty, said he was asked to add this comment from the faculty: “In the spirit of charity, in the interests of the well-being of ours students, and faithful to the call of our mission, we the faculty of Mount St. Mary’s issue the following statement to our president.”
McCarthy added his personal thought, as well. “I would like to say that the spirit of good will and charity expressed in the letter is why the Mount is such a wonderful community.”
University officials had announced shortly before the vote that they had reinstated two professors who were fired earlier this week.
But one of the professors disputed that, saying he has not yet been reinstated — because he hasn’t decided whether to accept.
The other said he would not accept unless the president and board chairman are no longer at the university.
Thane Naberhaus, a tenured professor, and Edward Egan, a former trustee and law professor who had been the adviser to the student newspaper when articles critical of the president were written, were both escorted off campus Monday. Many viewed their terminations as retribution for opposing Newman.
The university said the terminations were not retribution, but a national outcry followed, with academics and several national groups stepping forward to promote the principle of academic freedom, which they thought had been violated. Within a few days, more than 8,000 scholars had digitally signed a petition asking for them to be reinstated.
On Friday afternoon, as faculty members met to discuss what steps to take — including consideration of a no-confidence vote in the president — Egan got a phone call.
It was Newman, he said. By his account, the president said, “because it’s the year of mercy, I am reinstating you.”
Egan was stunned. He said he told Newman he would have to think about that.
And then he drove to the campus — still unsure whether he would be escorted back off — and walked into the faculty meeting.
Ed Egan walked into the faculty meeting, according to another professor who was there, and when people told him he had been reinstated, he said no – he was considering it. He told them Newman had said it was because it was the year of mercy, as if Egan had done something wrong, as if the students had done something wrong and were in need of mercy.
He said it was an attempt to placate the faculty. And he said reinstating the two of them doesn’t make any of the other problems go away. “Simon Newman needs to show mercy on Mount St. Mary’s, and resign.”
Then he told them he loved them and he left.
In a press release from the university before the vote, officials wrote that Newman “announced today at a faculty meeting that he was reinstating Professor Thane Naberhaus and Mr. Edward Egan as employees of the University as a first step of reconciliation and healing in the Season of Lent and the Year of Mercy.
The reinstatement is effective immediately.”
Newman said, in the release, “We will work to implement the initiatives we agree are important for our students’ future and our university’s future. And most importantly, eliminate the feelings of fear and injustice that any may be harboring, work through our misunderstandings, and make a new beginning as a unified team. You have my solemn commitment to work together to restore our relationship and our school.”
The Rev. Kevin Farmer, a board member, who also spoke at the faculty meeting, said in the release, “The board continues to support President Newman. We embrace his vision for the future of the university and believe he is the best person to carry it out. We have every desire to resolve the tension on campus and move forward together.”
Newman’s tenure at the private 2,300-student university in Maryland was divisive before this firestorm. He was appointed in 2015, replacing a longtime president, and he proposed sweeping changes to the school. Those ideas struck some as necessary, modern and important, and others as a fundamental blow to the heart of its long-held Catholic, nurturing, liberal-arts identity.
Newman, who graduated from the University of Cambridge and the Stanford Graduate School of Business, worked in finance before coming to the Mount, and his blunt talk and market-driven approach were jarring to some in academia, but refreshing to others. He talked about dramatically increasing enrollment, fundraising, raising its profile, adding cybersecurity courses and ensuring that students graduated and were able to launch successful careers. He announced cuts to retirement benefits that upset some.
But the controversy really began when the school’s student newspaper, the Mountain Echo, wrote that the president’s effort to retain more students included a plan to identify freshmen at risk of dropping out several weeks into the semester and encouraging them to leave. The president said it was a small part of a larger effort to keep students there, and that he would offer those who left a tuition refund. But when a professor resisted providing a list of at-risk students so early on, Newman told him there would be 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 later apologized for his choice of words and explained the goals of his retention program and the importance of targeting and intervening early in a piece he wrote for The Post.
Many were shocked and upset by the story. Some were angry that private conversations and emails had been made public.
The Cardinal Newman Society, which promotes Catholic education, wrote in a public statement Friday of concerns at the university, which it has previously strongly endorsed. “It is the position of The Cardinal Newman Society that any plan to weed out matriculated students without first providing substantial assistance and demonstrating a sincere commitment to the students’ personal formation and well-being would be contrary to a university’s Catholic identity.”
No students left the school as a result of the survey or its findings. The board chairman, who did not respond to requests for an interview Friday, wrote in a public statement last month of the “forensic investigation” they had conducted after the story was published in January. He praised the retention program, despite its startup problems, he wrote, and found it fully in keeping with their Catholic values.
“It takes an innovative approach that includes gathering and analyzing information from a range of sources, including our faculty, whom we have trained on how to have rich, supportive conversations with students.”
He wrote that the president’s “inappropriate metaphor” had been taken out of context and mischaracterized.
And he wrote that they had found something deeply troubling: an organized, small group of faculty and recent alumni working to force Newman out. “This group’s issues are born out of a real resistance to positive change at Mount St. Mary’s.” The board had, after learning of the article, voted unanimously its full confidence in Newman.
After the sudden termination Monday, Naberhaus, the professor with tenure, was surprised Wednesday by a letter offering a chance at reconciliation, which said that he remained on the payroll and was suspended.
Naberhaus said he found it baffling.
On Friday, Naberhaus said he got a voicemail message from Newman asking him to call back. He hadn’t done so yet at 5 p.m. Friday but, he said, “I’m not interested in having my job back until the president’s gone.”
A couple of professors said after the meeting Friday said they felt their vote had reflected the true spirit of the Mount: Charity, compassion, and community.