The faculty, administrators, and almost everybody else at a small Catholic college in Maryland are in full revolt because their current president allegedly tried to marginalize the school’s Catholic identity and attempted to summarily fire tenured professors for perceived disloyalty.
Simon Newman made his fortune in the business world, but in 2015 he became the president of Mount St. Mary’s University, a liberal arts school in Emmitsburg, Md. The school is one of the oldest Catholic universities in the United States and also houses the country’s second-largest Catholic seminary.
Newman apparently decided that situation wasn’t enough for the school, and sought to radically reform its identity and supercharge its rankings. Now, it appears he may be forced out of his job instead.
The trouble began in January, when the Mountain Echo, a student publication, revealed the details of a meeting between Newman and several faculty members regarding his plan to boost the school’s rankings. Newman wanted to give freshmen a survey that would be used to identify about two dozen who would be deemed at high risk of failing (due to learning disabilities, depression, financial reasons, or other factors), with the goal of dismissing them from the college early with a full tuition refund so that their ultimate failure to graduate would not count against rankings. When some professors objected to the request, saying it would be wrong or misguided to push those kinds of students out, Newman said there would be some necessary “collateral damage” with his plan and said they needed to learn to “drown the bunnies.”
“This is hard for you because you think of the students as cuddly bunnies, but you can’t,” Newman reportedly said. “You just have to drown the bunnies … put a Glock to their heads.”
That controversy by itself would have been a little embarrassing, but it only grew more wild from there.
Newman retaliated Feb. 8 by firing two faculty members; one served as a faculty adviser to the Mountain Echo and the other was simply an outspoken critic of Newman’s policies. Both received dismissal letters explicitly accusing them of being “disloyal” to the university. Newman also demoted the school’s provost, who remained as a regular faculty member.
Especially because one of the fired faculty members, Thane Naberhaus, had tenure, the firings sparked a national outrage, with critics accusing Newman of crushing academic freedom.
The controversial firings, it turns out, were only the start of the scandal. Anger at Newman caused a host of stories to bubble up in local and Catholic news sources, accusing Newman of trying to quash the school’s well-established Catholic identity.
According to the Catholic News Agency (CNA), Newman repeatedly made disparaging remarks about the school’s religious identity, at one point even referring to some Catholic students as “Catholic jihadis.” The recently-dismissed Naberhaus told CNA that Newman had taken a business-like approach to the school’s operation, complaining that “if you go in the marketplace, Catholic doesn’t sell, liberal arts doesn’t sell.'”
Similarly, a former administrator told CNA that Newman once complained the school had too many crucifixes on campus.
In response to intense criticism, Newman reinstated the two fired professors Friday, but the damage had already been done. Naberhaus responded by insisting that he will not return to the school as long as Newman remains president.
“Hell no,” he told the Chronicle of Higher Education in an email. “Not going back until he’s gone.”
Naberhaus may not have long to wait. The school’s faculty voted Friday by a stunningly lopsided 87-3 margin to demand that Newman step down by Monday.
Whether the faculty will get their wish is unclear. Thus far, the school’s board has steadfastly stood behind Newman, instead suggesting that unruly faculty are to blame for tensions at the school.
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