The man seeking to transform America’s second-oldest Catholic college into yet another trade school misses his own irony.
Simon Newman assumed the presidency of 208-year-old Mount St. Mary’s last year without spending a day as a professor, provost, or even proctor. Would Newman, a fierce advocate of college as job training, have hired someone with no experience in finance to run his investment firm? The stupidity of the Maryland school’s board offering the job to the neophyte, and the arrogance of him accepting it, at least shows that they don’t hold on to the courage of their convictions when determining who qualifies to lead a university.
The national controversy ostensibly stems from Newman’s ethically dubious scheme to foist a questionnaire upon incoming freshmen that would help determine their future at the college despite planning to instruct the new students that they could offer no wrong answers. Several philosophers, knowing something about both ethics and logic, objected — both to the misleading language and the bassackwards proposal to vet students after admitting them — and helped derail the president’s plan.
Newman doubled down on his buffoonery in the language used to defend his scheme: “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.”
Unable to effectively answer his critics, the president summarily fired several of them, including tenured philosopher Thane Naberhaus and Ed Egan, an untenured law professor who served as advisor to the student newspaper that broke the story of the college president using the unfortunate metaphor involving a “Glock” and the heads of 18-year-old kids. Two more who lost their posts in the purge retain other positions at the university. A Minority Report quality colors the precognition required to determine future dropouts just as a 1984 vibe surrounds the firing of a tenured professor on “disloyalty” grounds for working against the institution’s temporary leader as he worked for the (hopefully) permanent institution.
The media rightly seizes on the shocking use of power without regard to shared governance (a concept the president allegedly pleaded ignorance to in the job interview) and the perhaps more shocking metaphor used by the administrator in regard to teenagers admitted to the college. But more consequential issues — academia’s cult of assessment and the gutting of the liberal arts in favor of vocational training — underlie the controversy.
Because the federal government, as well as U.S. News and World Report and other popular ranking outfits, evaluates schools in part on the number of dropouts after a certain date, Newman sought to game the system by nudging at-risk students, identified as such through a dishonestly worded questionnaire, to withdraw a few weeks into the school year so as not to reflect poorly on the school’s rankings. Aside from calling into question the analytics that purportedly tell us what makes a good school, Newman’s Enron-esque bookkeeping indicates that the appearance of quality, rather than quality itself, motivates his actions.
Since taking the reins at the Mount, Newman dismisses as “Catholic jihadists” the critics of his plans to erode the core curriculum and turn the Catholic liberal arts college into a professional school. “We are transforming our 200-year-old Catholic University to meet the needs of a demanding global economy,” Newman wrote in a damage-control letter to parents, and “preparing students for a more technical skills-based job market.”
A permanent expertise in a fleeting specialty appears in demand. But like all fashions, it soon proves worthless. Simon Newman’s forebears urged students to learn Morse code, radio repair, and DOS. Nothing looks so past tense to today than yesterday’s wave of the future.
A true liberal arts education in what Matthew Arnold described as “the best which has been thought and said” equips young people with the tools to govern their souls and their society. This instruction, once dubbed the education fit for a king, must fit for everybody in a nation governed by millions of people, as Mortimer Adler pointed out more than a half century ago. The world needs educated graduates who know how to think rather than trained ones told what to think.
The Nicomachean Ethics and Measure for Measure do a better job in instructing souls and citizens than computer programming. We need the latter; more so do computer programmers need Aristotle and Shakespeare. Their eternal quality beats the ephemeral education the big man on campus pushes in Emmitsburg, Maryland.
Capitalists err in running businesses like charities, donating shareholder money to causes and campaigns. A related mistake sees capitalists running charities like businesses. Tenure, shared governance, freedom of speech, and other features of campus life make it impossible for a college president to govern, at least for long, as a dictatorial CEO. And if he does, he opens the school to expensive lawsuits, ridicule in national newspapers, and the ensuing scorn from prospective students, quality faculty, and donors.
Surely Simon Newman understands when the bottom line speaks.