Mount St. Mary’s in Maryland, a low-profile Catholic university, is suddenly the focus of heavy national publicity. “Drown the bunnies,” (Let’s get rid of academically weak freshmen), announced as a policy by the school’s president, Simon Newman, attracted attention, but when the bunny-drowning strategy was followed by the firing of two people, one a tenured professor, a small, curious story blossomed into large national headlines.
Thane Naberhaus, a Husserl scholar who held a tenured position of Associate Professor at the university, was abruptly fired Monday and escorted from the campus by security. Also fired was Edward Egan, an alumnus and former trustee of the Mount, who taught Political Science and advised the school’s student newspaper,
A Deceptive Survey?
The cause of their firing, though officially unspecified so far (Naberhaus’s letter of termination spoke ominously of violating his “duty of loyalty” to the Mount, and the university has declined to comment), clearly has to do with their role in opposing a plan, devised by Mount St. Mary’s President Simon Newman, to dismiss first-year students deemed unlikely to succeed. (It was the Mount’s student newspaper, advised by Egan, that first broke this story.) All this was supposed to happen within the first few weeks of the students’ first semester at college. Why the rush? It’s because only if the students disappeared so quickly could the Mount see a boost in the retention statistics it reports to the federal government.
Whatever one thinks of the numbers of unprepared students now enrolling at colleges, addressing the problem by kicking them out is clearly a bad move, especially when 1) this is done within just a few weeks of their arrival on campus, and 2) when the expulsions are based on students’ responses to personal questions – in what was supposed to be a confidential survey administered by the university as a means to help students. It seems the real motive behind the survey (e.g. probing for feelings of depression, financial problems, and deaths among friends or family) was the cynical reason for helping the school, not the students.
Yet when my good friend Gregory Murry, an untenured history professor at Mount St. Mary’s who helped administer the survey objected to the endeavor, President Newman told him to stop caring: “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.”
Naberhaus and Egan were fired for helping to reveal this callous attitude toward student welfare and Murry’s job is apparently in jeopardy, too. That in the case of Naberhaus the target was a tenured professor – someone who according to AAUP guidelines and standard practice at universities across the US is entitled to due process before he can be fired was simply handed a letter and then escorted to his car – makes this especially appalling, and is surely part of why several thousand academics have signed a statement of protest opposing the firings. That all this happened at a Catholic university, where the apostolic constitution Ex Corde Ecclesiae instructs that “the freedom of conscience is to be fully respected” – well, most of us have learned not to expect much from Catholic universities at this point, so maybe that’s not such a surprise.
The Mount, though, is supposed to be different. It’s supposed to be a community, a place where administrators aren’t bosses, students aren’t customers, and faculty aren’t employees. Simon Newman, with his MBA and previous stint at Bain Capital, seems not to care about this. If that weren’t evident enough in his profanity-laced tough-guy rhetoric (for which we are assured he has apologized), it became much clearer when he abruptly did away with a retirement benefit that had long been promised to former faculty and staff who had spent their lives working at the Mount, in many cases for very poor pay.
Then it was the new freshmen, especially those struggling with depression or financial anxiety, or feeling “unliked” in their first weeks of college, who were to be targeted for the sake of the bottom line. (If some of these students would have gone on to succeed? “Collateral damage,” Newman called them.) And now it is Professors Egan and Naberhaus – the former a lifelong friend of the Mount, the latter a father with two young children.
In the time I taught at Mount St. Mary’s I encountered many students who would likely have been better off waiting a few years before going to college, or maybe not going at all. I also encountered many more who struggled at various times, and as freshmen especially, before turning around to become wonderful students and exemplary adults. Many such students have spoken out in the wake of Newman’s callous comments, recalling what it was like to be a struggling college student, and the way that faculty and administrators at the Mount reached out to help them work through this. Large secular universities, like the one where I teach now, usually aren’t able to do this sort of thing, at least not in such a focused way. Having access to this level of support and understanding is one of the things that makes going to a small Catholic college arguably worth the bill.
Simon Newman appears not to see this. Or if he does, he appears not to think it very important, and is intent on taking the Mount down a very different path. If he has his way, it could spell the end of America’s second-oldest Catholic university.
John Schwenkler taught philosophy at Mount St. Mary’s 2010-2013.