'Drown the bunnies' president out at Mount St. Mary's

'Drown the bunnies' president out at Mount St. Mary's

Simon Newman, president of Mount St. Mary's University in Emmitsburg, Maryland. (YouTube)

The president of a Catholic university who invoked an image of drowning bunnies when talking about struggling students is out of a job. The board of trustees at Mount St. Mary’s University in Maryland released a statement late Monday announcing that Simon Newman has resigned from his job effective immediately.

The president of a Catholic university who invoked an image of drowning bunnies when talking about struggling students is out of a job.

The board of trustees at Mount St. Mary’s University in Maryland released a statement late Monday announcing that Simon Newman has resigned from his job effective immediately.

“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 benefitted the entire Mount community,” John Coyne, the board’s chairman, said in the statement.

Newman said his continued presence on campus would be a “distraction,” so he decided to step down.

“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,” he said in the statement. “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.”

Newman was president for less than a year, hired after a long career in business, which included stints at Bain and Co. and JP Capital Partners. But he had no previous experience in higher education.

The trouble for Newman began in January when the school’s student newspaper, The Mountain Echo, reported on the president’s plan to increase its student retention percentage by identifying struggling students early in the academic year and encouraging them to drop out.

The plan included a survey for students that asked about their mental health and how they were adjusting to college life. Based on that data and the information from faculty, so-called at-risk students would be encouraged to leave the school — with a tuition refund — before the federal government’s September deadline for filing retention stats.

But it was comments Newman made to faculty about struggling students that shocked parents and students and sparked national outrage.

“This is hard for you because you think of the students as cuddly bunnies, but you can’t,” he told staff and faculty who objected to the weeding-out plan. “You just have to drown the bunnies . . . put a Glock to their heads.”

Pressure increased last month when Newman sacked two faculty members, one for being disloyal and another he accused of leaking information to the student newspaper. Newman eventually relented, offering both professors their jobs back, but not before the faculty demanded Newman resign in an 87-3 vote on Feb. 12.

Newman defied the faculty’s request, spending the following weekend on campus with students, some of whom rallied in support of Newman. The student government of the Maryland Catholic school, for instance, conducted a poll in which 75 percent of respondents said Newman should not resign.

Mount St. Mary’s is the nation’s second oldest Catholic university, and a conservative Catholic higher-ed watchdog group also put pressure on Newman, after one of the fired professors claimed the former president was trying to dilute the school’s Catholic image. Other faculty reported that Newman wondered why crucifixes were prominently displayed on the school’s campus.

“It is the position of The Cardinal Newman Society that any plan to weed out matriculated students without first providing substantial assistance and demonstrating a sincere commitment to the students’ personal formation and well-being would be contrary to a university’s Catholic identity,” the organization said in a statement Feb. 12.

“Student formation in mind, body and soul is the essence of faithful Catholic education, and at a Catholic university, no financial concern or desire for secular prestige should supplant the University’s core purposes,” it continued.

The group, which tracks what it sees as deviations from traditional Catholic teaching at Church-affiliated colleges and universities, and which does not recommend legacy institutions such as the University of Notre Dame, Georgetown, or Boston College, said, “A university that is fully committed to its Catholic mission will not hide it.”

An online petition calling for Newman to reinstate the two faculty and for the administration to be “held accountable” for the firings of the two professors received more than 8,000 signatures last month. Many signatories identified themselves as professors or students at other Catholic colleges and universities.

And in a rare public rebuke from a colleague, Patricia McGuire, president of Trinity Washington University, chided Newman in a rare public admonition of another school’s president, writing in The Chronicle of Higher Education that by misunderstanding what it means to be a Catholic university, Newman was putting Mount St. Mary’s future at risk.

The school announced that Karl Einolf, dean of the Richard J. Bolte Sr. School of Business, will serve as acting president.

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