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Mount St. Mary’s University president resigns

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)
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Simon Newman, the Mount St. Mary’s University president who astonished many with a brutal remark, inspired some to a new vision for the university, and set off an intense national debate about academic freedom, will step down effective immediately.

Karl Einolf, the dean of the Richard J.Bolte, Sr., School of Business at the university will serve as acting president, the board of trustees announced Monday night.

The change came after weeks of turmoil at the country’s second-oldest Catholic university, which faced questions from its faculty, alumni and national groups — including the organization that provides the crucial accreditation for the university — over its future direction and leadership. Some saw it as a clash between those open to change and those mired in tradition. Others felt  it had become a debate over the very soul of the university: Catholic or corporate?

“I am proud of what I have been able to achieve in a relatively short time particularly in helping the University chart a clear course toward a bright future,” Newman said in a statement Monday evening.  “I care deeply about the school and the recent publicity relating to my leadership has become too great of a distraction to our mission of educating students.  It was a difficult decision but I believe it is the right course of action for the Mount at this time.”

Column: Mount St. Mary’s University and the dilemma facing American higher education

John Coyne, chairman of the board of trustees, said in a statement, “The board is grateful to President Newman for his many accomplishments over the past year, including strengthening the University’s finances, developing a comprehensive strategic plan for our future, and bringing many new ideas to campus that have benefited the entire Mount community. We thank him for his service.”

Einolf, who graduated from Penn State and Johns Hopkins University and earned his doctorate from Lehigh University, has been a professor of finance at the Mount. He won an award for teaching excellence and directed the university’s honors program. He taught a popular course that melded business strategy with fantasy football, in which students grappled with salary negotiations, strikes, broadcast revenue sharing, and other issues. Before joining the faculty in 1998 Einolf worked for the Sprint Corporation in various finance, marketing, and human-resource positions, according to the university statement.

Newman came to the Maryland campus in 2015 with plans for sweeping changes, such as boosting enrollment, shoring up the university’s finances and raising its national profile. His blunt business manner — he had been in the financial industry for his entire career — was welcome to some and jarring to others. Several people were abruptly fired and escorted off campus, and retiree benefits were cut in the fall. But the real turmoil began this year after the student newspaper, the Mountain Echo, reported that Newman had planned to cull struggling freshmen early in the semester, before a federal reporting deadline, to improve the university’s retention rate.

No students left the school as a result of the survey, but Newman’s remarks after some faculty members expressed concerns about the plan shocked many; he said a professor was thinking of the students as cuddly bunnies but that they had to drown the bunnies, “put a Glock to their heads.”

When two professors were subsequently fired — one with tenure, one who had been the adviser to the Echo — many interpreted it as retaliation for opposing Newman’s policies despite the administration’s denial that it was retribution.

A national outcry over academic freedom ensued, with more than 8,000 scholars digitally signing a document asking for the professors to be reinstated.

They were, but the faculty voted 87 to 3 to ask Newman to resign by Feb. 15.

He did not do so.

University president says struggling freshmen are bunnies that should be drowned

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

Some of the university’s 2,300 students expressed support for Newman by holding a rally in mid-February. And while some students said they didn’t feel comfortable responding to a survey about his leadership when their student IDs were required, a strong majority of those undergraduates who did respond said they were for Newman.

The board had been steadfast in its support for Newman, with public messages from the chairman praising his leadership, and criticizing professors whom Coyne said were working against the president.

In mid-February, the board apologized to the campus community for a “breakdown in compassionate communication and collaboration that we have all witnessed in the past few weeks.” The board announced that “the current situation at the Mount is naturally of great importance and urgency to the Board and the Trustees wish to take the time to listen, and to hear from all of the constituencies involved in order to make the best informed decisions.”

The statement anticipated two weeks of outreach, with several trustees visiting on campus to meet with deans, professors, staff members, administrators and some students on campus.

There were professors who supported the changes Newman proposed to the liberal-arts university, such as paring down the core curriculum, ensuring students graduate with marketable degrees, and adding in-demand new programs such as cybersecurity. But others said they were concerned about the impact he had had on campus and how the university could attract the best students, faculty and donor support in the wake of so much controversy. Some worried that the university’s Catholic mission, a guiding principle of the institution for 200 years, was being pushed aside.

There was another fear, as well: The Mount’s accreditation was just reaffirmed in June, with its next scheduled review report in 2020. But this month the  Middle States Commission on Higher Education requested  “a supplemental information report, due March 15, 2016, addressing recent developments at the University which may have implications for continued compliance with Requirement of Affiliation #9, Standard 4 (Leadership and Governance), Standard 6 (Integrity), Standard 8 (Student Admissions and Retention), and Standard 10 (Faculty).”

There’s a lot at stake with accreditation, which in effect signals that the institution has been examined and meets expected standards; universities must maintain accreditation in order to qualify for federal financial aid programs.

In an email Thursday, Elizabeth H. Sibolski, the president of the Middle States, said, “We are asking that the requested report focus on one requirement of affiliation and the four accreditation standards that seemed most closely related to the situation as reported.

“The supplemental information report allows the institution to provide information directly to the Commission.

“… The institution’s report will be considered by one of the Commission’s standing committees prior to further consideration and action by the full Commission.”

Some faculty members said the standards that were singled out — leadership and governance, integrity, student admissions and retention, and faculty — are clear indications of concern about recent events.

But a spokesperson for the university wrote in an email, “In June of 2015, Mount St. Mary’s University received the highest accolades when our accreditor reaffirmed our accreditation with no concerns.

“We welcome their recent request and are addressing it through the appropriate university channels.”

David Rehm, who had been provost but was demoted shortly before the two professors were fired, and Leona Sevick, whose resignation in order to become provost at Bridgewater College was recently announced, will lead the response to Middle States, with help from the previous co-chairs of each standard in question. Both were participants in a private email conversation among a small group of faculty and administrators expressing reservations about Newman’s retention plan, which was first reported in the Mountain Echo and confirmed by The Post.

Newman continued to make his case, outlining in a letter to the Mountain Echo his ideas for the university, “Mount 2.0,” and he was apparently planning to continue meeting with alumni; one shared an invitation to an event at one of the Philadelphia Main Line’s country clubs planned for this Thursday.

In her email to the campus community explaining that the trustees had concluded most of their meetings on campus and would meet Monday, Gracelyn McDermott, the trustee who leads the “Way Forward” task force, closed with thanks “for your ongoing prayers to the Holy Spirit for wisdom in these challenging times.”

Some faculty leaders issued a written statement Monday night. “We, the deans and department chairs of Mount St. Mary’s University, express our thanks to Simon Newman for his work on our behalf and wish him well in his future endeavors. We also express our gratitude to the Board of Trustees for their leadership.  We look forward to working closely with Acting President Karl Einolf in the coming months.”

Duffy Ross, the former director of university communications who was one of several administrators abruptly fired in the fall, said Monday evening of the Mount, “There are very, very,very good people there, and while the Mount has certainly seen its challenges over the last weeks and months, I am very hopeful that some healing can come from this, and the university can focus on its true mission — and that’s educating students in service to the church and to this country.”