From drowning bunnies to a governance crisis

An interesting approach to student retention and something of a governance challenge

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Inside Higher Ed has run a series of stories about the most extraordinary happenings at a small US Catholic college where a new president has made something of a splash:

It may be the worst possible metaphor for a college president to use in talking about struggling students. Simon Newman, president of Mount St. Mary’s University, in Maryland, told faculty members: “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.”

Shortly to be leaving the university
Shortly to be leaving the university

The quote was first revealed by the student newspaper, The Mountain Echo, along with leaked emails about a plan by the president to use a survey of freshmen to identify those unlikely to succeed and convince them to leave the university in the first weeks of their first semester — before they would owe full tuition, but also before they could be counted as noncompleters who would bring down the university’s official retention rate.

It did seem at the beginning of the saga that there wasn’t anything that novel about this particular approach to addressing student success rates. Admittedly, it was not pleasant and rather harsh: identifying weaker students and persuading them to leave the university early before they in all likelihood failed in order to improve retention rates. While this was not the most terrible policy – I am sure other US universities employ it – it does rather suggest their admissions practices could do with improvement.

Mother Theresa visited here. Twice.
Mother Theresa visited here. Twice.

But what was unusual in this case was how the strategy was described by the president (although why you would need both to drown the bunnies and shoot them is unexplained). Since then Inside Higher Ed has continued to cover the issue. The president, Dr Simon Newman (no relation), has fired and then reinstated two professors and fired a provost.

The reinstatement has not calmed matters though as there are clearly many unhappy faculty (who have voted for the president to resign) as well as some students and alumni. Others though are supportive including the board of trustees and other current and former students.

Inside Higher Ed continues to follow the story and has more, quoting a rather zealous email from an alum:

Another email some have received says, “Evil is swirling around the Mount, creating chaos and angst everywhere. But even as Satan sows seeds of hate and confusion it is possible to see God’s grace at work. I’ve reconnected with classmates and schoolmates, strengthening old friendships and making new ones.” That email goes on to say that “Dr. Newman is trying to bring about necessary changes to strengthen the Mount and position it for a stronger future. I hope reports of strong-arm tactics to influence the vote against Dr. Newman are unfounded.”

So there is support out there for Dr Newman, who looks secure for the time being despite the efforts of  the forces of evil. However, I suspect the university will be looking at some new policies to aid student retention in future. And the fissures in governance, between the board, president, and the faculty are going to take some fixing. This one has some distance to run yet.

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