On Friday, the faculty at Mount St. Mary’s University voted 87 to 3 to ask their president, Simon Newman, to resign by 9 a.m. Monday.
On Sunday, students gave a strong vote of support to Newman.
The private college in Maryland has been swept up in turmoil over the leadership and future direction of the more-than-200-year-old campus, known for its Catholic ideals, liberal arts, and close-knit community.
Newman did not respond publicly, but he spent much of the weekend at campus events with students. And students responded to a survey about the president and the future of the Mount, with three-quarters of those asked saying they support the president.
“I commend the Student Government Association for its initiative in organizing and administering this poll to students,” Newman said in a written statement. “I recognize our student’s strong desire to express themselves on this issue and I greatly appreciate their vote of confidence and support in my leadership.”
The student government association — which has declined to comment on issues at the Mount, directing questions from the Post to the university spokesperson — sent an email to the campus community announcing that of the undergraduates who were surveyed (graduate students and seminarians were not polled), more than half responded and of those, a strong majority voted in favor of Newman.
Newman’s leadership has been debated on campus and off soon after he took office in 2015 with dramatic plans for the Emmitsburg, Md. campus. After a career in finance, he was appointed president and promised to increase fundraising, raise the university’s profile and increase enrollment. But sudden cuts to retirement benefits and a retention plan that the student newspaper, the Mountain Echo, first reported encouraged culling 20 to 25 students from the freshman class early in the first semester, before enrollment figures were reported to the federal government, in order to improve retention rates and rankings, startled some.
When some professors objected to the idea of coming up with a list of students at risk of dropping out so early in the semester, Newman told them “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.”
No students were forced out as a result of the freshmen survey. But the idea, and that remark, turned an internal debate over whether the university should modernize and put less emphasis on its liberal arts, Catholic identity and streamline its core curriculum, into an open controversy.
And when two professors were fired — one with tenure, one who had been a trustee and who was the adviser to the student newspaper when the story damaging to Newman was published — the backlash was immediate, and fierce.
Their firings followed the demotion of the then-provost, who had expressed concerns about the freshman survey, and while the university said the terminations were not retribution, many interpreted it as payback for opposing the president. Within days, more than 8,000 scholars signed a petition calling for their reinstatement and defending academic freedom, and several national organizations deplored the university’s decision.
The Cardinal Newman Society, which promotes Catholic education, announced Friday in a public statement that they have serious concerns about the university, after many years of enthusiastic endorsement.
Some alumni and faculty who oppose President Newman were skeptical that students would feel comfortable giving an unbiased opinion in a survey that required response to the administration with their student IDs.
A university spokesperson said the survey was a student-government initiative.
An email to the senior class from student government leaders this weekend read:
“Your honest opinion, make it matter tonight!
“… Each of us know the uncertainty surrounding our campus, that does not need to be reiterated. But never has there been a better time to let your voice be heard. … I ask that you share your honest opinion about the following: your personal experience, the positive and the negative, your growth, your professors, and even President Newman.
“We are experiencing a time on campus unlike any before, every single voice and vote counts. I ask that you share you opinion in the form of a note or letter, addressed to the Board of Trustees in addition to casting your vote of confidence or lack [thereof].”
It asked for them to send their letter to an administrator who serves as a liaison from the president’s office to the rest of the university. “If you would like to be anonymous, you may email your response to this email, and we will pass it on without your name. We urge you to send even the shortest mail, as every opinion counts. The Board will be reading every letter.
“Change is coming, and we get to have a say on how we move forward.”
The email also included a link “to the university survey where you can cast your vote. This official voting is being conducted by the Department of Institutional Research. It is password protected by your six-digit student ID number which will be needed for access to ensure that only Mount students can vote and that each student can vote only once.
“Institutional Research will not release any identifying information regarding your response to anyone. The only information shared will be the aggregate of the yes/no votes and the response %.”
On Sunday evening, an email from student government went out: “After an intense weekend of emotions, judgement and turmoil, the results of the student survey are finalized.
“… The results demonstrated a 75.6% or 719 people voted in favor, while 24.4% or 232 people voted not in favor of the leadership of our President, Simon Newman.”
Stephen Witkowski, a senior at Mount St. Mary’s, sent an email Sunday night sharing photos of signs supporting Newman, and a petition with hundreds of supporters, some named, some anonymous.
“Mount St. Mary’s University needs Simon Newman,” Witkowski said. “He is an intelligent businessman with only the Mount’s best interest at heart. He has given a number of speeches and presentations to keep transparency between administration and student body, and for that he should be admired. As a student, he has exceeded my expectations as a president.”
Witkowski wrote in his email that there would be a rally at 8:30 Monday morning – before the deadline that faculty set for the president to resign – and that they would be there, rain or shine, to support Newman.