“Welcome to The Mount St. Mary’s University Class of 2019 Survey!”
In the hours before incoming freshmen were greeted with that message on their first day at the private university in Maryland, an email exchange about the questionnaire set off a series of events that now has the school embroiled in a national controversy over academic freedom.
Amid a growing divide over the future direction of the university, the survey became a symbol of a new president’s policies and galvanized opposition to his ideas.
The Mount’s new president, Simon Newman, had a plan to improve retention — the university had been losing nearly a quarter of its freshmen class — along with other goals such as doubling enrollment, improving the university’s finances and providing more courses and majors such as cybersecurity, which could lead to good careers after graduation.
The ideas were sweeping, ambitious and divisive; some at the university saw Newman as a visionary who would lead a strengthened school into the future, while others worried he was beginning to rethink the very soul of a place rooted in a caring, Catholic, liberal arts identity.
The survey was part of the effort to identify students who were struggling much earlier, in the first weeks of freshman year, which Newman said was in keeping with current research. If there were students who did not want to be there, he argued, they could leave early and the university would refund their tuition money.
But the effort alarmed some at the university, and when the student newspaper, the Mountain Echo, wrote about an emailed debate over it, the impact was incendiary. Newman had written that he wanted to identify 20 to 25 students at risk and encourage them to drop out before the deadline for reporting enrollment to the federal government.
That could potentially improve the school’s retention rate, but several of his colleagues raised concerns about the design, ethics and intent of the survey.
After Newman discussed the survey results with freshmen in a presentation several weeks into the school year, a professor there objected when the president asked for a list of students at risk of dropping out, saying it was too early in the academic year to predict student success. Newman said, “There will be some collateral damage.”
In that private conversation between a few colleagues, first reported by the Mountain Echo and independently confirmed by The Washington Post, Newman went on, “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.”
A spokesperson for the university said that the president was not asking for a list of students based on survey results, but based on other factors such as not showing up to class.
This week, the adviser to the student paper was abruptly fired, as was a tenured professor, in a move that struck many as retribution for opposing the president’s policies. Newman has declined to comment to The Post, but in a letter to parents this week he wrote, “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.”
It touched off a firestorm. More than 7,700 scholars have digitally signed a petition posted online Tuesday, defending the principle of academic freedom and calling for the professors to be reinstated. Several national groups including the American Association of University Professors and the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education decried the firings. Some alumni began selling “Save the bunnies” T-shirts to raise money to support students. Faculty plan to meet today to discuss a no-confidence resolution.
Some were angry that private conversations had been made so public and worried about lasting damage to the university.
Others pleaded with the board, as Joseph Baldacchino of the class of 1970 did, to know whether all of the trustees supported Newman, as the board chairman repeatedly and strongly has made clear that he does.
“Let us have the yeas and nays — a roll call vote,” Baldacchino urged. “That way, if they destroy the Mount ostensibly to save it, posterity will know whom to blame.”
The survey, a copy of which was obtained by The Post, was given to all students on their first day at the university. It opened with the welcome, and then:
The Mount is committed to providing our students with an outstanding educational experience. Our goal is to help our students become the best people they can be and to prepare them to be highly effective leaders and contributors to society. We want you to leave The Mount and lead very happy and extraordinary lives.
“We firmly believe that the SAT and ACT exams, and even a GPA score, do not effectively value the potential of anyone. At The Mount, we look beyond these simple numbers and seek to understand what motivates each student, as well as understand what factors may be holding each student back from performing at his or her best.
“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.
The survey then asks for students’ ID numbers, and begins with questions about potential courses or degree programs to gauge interest in those.
A university spokesperson said the survey also included this line in its introductory passage: “Your responses will be kept confidential. If this data were to be used in a research project, your responses would be confidential and anonymous. If you would like more information or have any questions or concerns please email email@example.com.”
He said he was unable to provide the entire survey to confirm that.
Students were asked about some personal beliefs, such as the role of luck or fate in a person’s success in life.
They were asked about whether certain events had happened in the previous year, such as the death of a close family member.
There were questions about learning and studying, what would keep them motivated to complete their college degree, asked to rank how much certain personality traits applied to them, questioned about religious beliefs, and whether they have a learning disability.
There were questions about emotions, such as whether in the past week, “I felt that I could not shake off the blues, even with help from my family and friends.”
Some university officials raised concerns privately about the ethics, intent, and lack of confidentiality of the survey.
A former dean had, in the private email exchange with colleagues, wrote some of his concerns, including, “… it seems that some responses to this survey could lead to drastic decisions. “There are no wrong answers”?!?!
“If this is not an anonymous survey, nor even a confidential personality test, but a highly intrusive, and misleadingly framed, administrative tool, can we proceed without disclosing to our students what’s at stake?”
Kevin Eagan, director of the Cooperative Institutional Research Program of the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA, which is the largest longitudinal study of college students in the United States, had not seen a copy but responded to a description of the survey in general terms, explaining best practices in the field.
“If the purpose of the instrument is not made clear to the participant that is problematic,” he said. “If it’s pitched to the participants as a way to understand their initial transition to college, and not more authentically pitched as ‘we’re using this to identify students who are having trouble,’ — and identify as in truly identify,” with their student ID numbers, “that may be misrepresenting the true intentions of the instrument.”
The annual CIRP survey, which has been administered for decades and reached 140,000 students this year at nearly 200 campuses, uses student ID numbers as well, he said. “We explain that to students, tell them their student ID will be given back to their campus but the information will not be used to target any individual.
“That’s all very clear. That’s best practice. We are very transparent about why we’re providing this information.”
They make it clear that students can choose not to respond to the entire survey or to individual questions. They explain how the data will be used.
Restricting access to the data at the individual level is important, he said, particularly if there is going to be identifiable information so there’s control over how it is used.
A university spokesperson wrote in an email, “The survey was reviewed during a comprehensive process and approved by the Institutional Review Board. This process is standard procedure on all universities. The MSMU Office of Institutional Research was conferred often on the topic of data ethics. Student names and ID’s were never kept together, and all data were stored on a restricted access network drive and password protected.
“The information from the survey was never going to be used to dismiss students. There was never an intent to dismiss students. No students were dismissed under President Newman’s retention plan.”
In “College retention: A moral obligation,” Newman explained why he felt so strongly a comprehensive retention plan was needed. He wrote of the expense of a college education, “It’s a staggering cost, but especially so for the families of students who won’t make it across the finish line. And more than 20 percent of first-year students who drop out still owe student loans on their failed education, further plunging them into economic hardship.
“Identifying these students, admitting they are not going to thrive and refunding their tuition is a moral imperative for every institution in the U.S.
“Many students aren’t always willing to raise their hand and say, ‘I need help.’ So it is our obligation to identify warning signs that can appear as early as a student’s first semester that the academics and college life is not the right fit.”
This post has been updated to correct the timing of the firing of two faculty members; it was this week.