The ongoing battle between the president of the nation’s second oldest Catholic university and its faculty took an unexpected twist late Friday, when the president of Mount St. Mary’s University announced that he had offered two fired professors their jobs back.
But it might have been too little, too late, as Mount St. Mary’s University faculty voted overwhelmingly Friday afternoon to ask for President Simon Newman’s resignation.
Saying that “negative public attention has interfered with our ability to continue in our work,” the faculty sent a letter to Newman in which they asked him to step down by 9 a.m. Monday.
Newman came under fire earlier this week after firing two faculty members who had been critical of his leadership, most notably his plan to weed out problematic students early in the academic year in order, some charge, to make the school’s retention statistics look better.
But one of those fired professors, Thane Naberhaus, who had taught philosophy at the Emmitsburg, Maryland, university, said he won’t be returning to the classroom anytime soon.
“Hell no,” Naberhaus said in response to a question from Inside Higher Ed about whether he would take up Newman on his offer. “I’ll refuse to be reinstated until Newman is gone and some others are gone.”
The other fired faculty member, who also was the student adviser to The Mountain Echo, the student newspaper that broke the story about Newman’s controversial retention plan, also called for the president’s resignation.
“Reinstating me does not make these other problems go away and Simon Newman needs to show mercy on Mount St. Mary’s and resign,” Ed Egan said.
Egan told Inside Higher Ed that Newman said he was extending an olive branch because of the pope’s emphasis on mercy. But Egan recoiled at the idea that he “had done something wrong and was in need of [Newman’s] mercy.”
Newman’s trouble began late last year when the student newspaper uncovered a controversial plan to improve student retention data. In general, close to a quarter of the university’s freshman class do not return for their sophomore year, a number Newman had hoped to lower.
The president’s plan was to ask faculty to identify struggling students early in the first semester. He also developed a survey for students asking 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.”
The student newspaper ran a series of stories about the plan and the president’s remarks. School administrators believed Egan was passing along confidential information to student reporters, although he has denied that claim.
Newman, who has no previous experience in higher education and who was hired after a long career in finance, defended his decision to fire the faculty in an e-mail to parents Wednesday.
“We need to move forward with hope and faith rather than fall prey to fear and disparity during this time of transition,” he wrote.
But Newman faced more pressure from within Catholic circles when Naberhaus, the fired philosophy professor, said Thursday that the president’s office was also considering distancing the university from its Catholic roots in order to attract more students.
“Catholic doesn’t sell,” Naberhaus told the Catholic News Agency. “He said publicly, ‘if you go in the marketplace, Catholic doesn’t sell, liberal arts doesn’t sell.’”
Then Friday, a conservative Catholic higher education watchdog group said it was considering dropping the university from its list of recommended schools because of the controversies, which it called “disappointing and even disturbing.”
“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 Friday.
“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 the faculty to be reinstated and for the administration to be “held accountable for this violation of their rights” has gained more than 8,000 signatures, many of whom are students and faculty at a number of other Catholic universities.
And 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 is putting Mount St. Mary’s future at risk.
“President Newman’s ill-tempered actions debilitate, rather than enhance, the prospects for moving the university forward,” she wrote.
For its part, the board of directors released a statement Friday saying it was standing by Newman.
Calling Newman “a transformational leader,” board chairman John E. Coyne wrote, “We are moving a 200 plus-year-old institution into a new era, with a dynamic and bright future. In higher education, change is hard.”