WHEN A university president likens struggling freshmen to bunnies who should be drowned, and suggests that the best course of action is to press a gun to their heads, it’s a fair conclusion that he’s in the wrong line of work. Any doubt is dispelled when, in response to the public disclosure of his peculiar prescription, he responds by firing critical professors for disloyalty.
In fact, it is Simon Newman, president of Mount St. Mary’s University, whose departure at this point would best serve the 208-year-old Catholic institution in northern Maryland. Hired last year to raise the university’s national profile, he has instead tarnished its reputation, and triggered a storm of national derision in the process.
Mr. Newman has only himself to blame for the mess at “the Mount,” as the university is known, despite his and the board of trustees’ despicable efforts to deflect fault to what they regard as a cabal of infidels among the faculty and alumni. It was Mr. Newman who, in a conversation with professors, said that struggling freshmen should be culled in order to improve Mount St. Mary’s student retention rate, which affects its standing in U.S. News and World Report’s rankings of colleges and universities.
Mr. Newman’s remarks were reported last month by the student newspaper, the Mountain Echo, whose reporters gleaned the story from professors who heard the president’s words. “This is hard for you because you think of the students as cuddly bunnies, but you can’t,” he was quoted as saying, apparently accurately. “You just have to drown the bunnies . . . put a Glock to their heads.”
Evidently incensed by the article — the characteristic outrage of bumbling leaders caught behaving as buffoons — Mr. Newman fired the student newspaper’s faculty adviser, Edward Egan, and a philosophy professor, Thane Naberhaus, who had been publicly critical of the president. Mr. Egan is an alumnus of the university and former trustee; Mr. Naberhaus was tenured and, as such, his firing may have been illegal.
The professors’ letters of dismissal cited their supposed disloyalty to Mount St. Mary’s. In fact, both men exhibited loyalty to principles of free speech and frank debate that should be at the core of a university’s mission. The British-born Mr. Newman, a former private equity executive with no professional background in higher education, apparently didn’t get that memo; nor did John Coyne, chairman of the university’s board, who defended the president and attacked his critics.
It’s fair for universities to debate how to deal with (and help) struggling students — though, in this case, Mr. Newman’s proposal seems a craven attempt to game the arbitrary criteria used in the U.S. News rankings. It’s also crass and imprudent for educators to demean those students, let alone in terms reminiscent of jackbooted villains in movies about the Third Reich. In the face of national criticism, and an overwhelming vote by the university’s faculty calling for Mr. Newman’s resignation, the university offered to reinstate both professors. It should, since the firings were retaliatory and unjustified.
But the damage has been done, both to Mount St. Mary’s stature and to its president’s. University administrators, no less than other leaders, are judged by their skills as communicators. By that measure, Mr. Newman has failed.