When Simon Newman fired the faculty advisor to the student newspaper and a tenured philosophy professor for “disloyalty,” what had been a PR nightmare about a plan to game national student retention numbers became a national scandal. Along the way the freshly minted president of Mount St. Mary’s University called the students entrusted to him “struggling bunnies” that should be “drowned” or “shot.”
In short order the editorial board of the Washington Post joined the faculty of Mount St. Mary’s in calling for the former private-equity CEO to resign. Then the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education named the Mount to its list of colleges it labeled “the nation’s 10 worst abusers of student and faculty free speech rights.”
How has a relatively small Catholic college in rural Maryland captured national attention away from chaos roiling much larger campuses? Some says it’s because we have reached a defining moment for small, liberal arts schools. Are they still relevant in a technology-saturated age? How will they compete for a shrinking applicant pool in coming years? Others say it’s a clash between student rights and faculty rights. Or most broadly, perhaps, a final battle to save free speech in a university setting.
In defense of the liberal arts, evidence of success abounds in the example of high-tech barons like Peter Thiel of Paypal who majored in Philosophy, Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook who majored in Psychology, and of course the late Steve Jobs who studied Calligraphy while at Reed College, a liberal arts school, in Oregon. These men aren’t known for technical abilities like “writing code” but imagining products and services that have transformed industries. The liberal arts help students to think big. That’s the inevitable outcome when you educate, like the liberal arts do, in big ideas.
The clash between student and faculty rights is another matter, and a major theme of Simon Newman’s tenure. After the Mount St. Mary’s faculty voted 87-3 on a Friday in favor of Newman stepping down on Monday, the Student Government Association sprang into action and held a referendum of their own and by Sunday affirmed Newman’s leadership by a vote of 75%-25%. It was under-reported that 40% of the student population declined to vote on the small residential campus. That Monday morning when the outcome was made public Newman appeared on the steps of the administration building with his wife to serve the students doughnuts and thank them for their support.
Pitting student and faculty factions against one another is a divisive tactic portending unanticipated dangers to academic freedom. The primary business of the university is carried out in the classroom, where cooperation is at a premium. Since the individuals who make up both sides are adults co-existing in a voluntary setting, there must be an atmosphere of mutual trust. Once that trust has been breached, the intellectual life of the school is replaced with a political one. And with politics come partisanship, confrontation, and a struggle for power.
The Board of Trustees that hired Neman has been a major contributor in politicizing the environment on campus. When the “kill the bunnies” story first broke in the student-run newspaper, the Mountain Echo, John Coyne, chairman of the Board of Trustees, accused student journalists of colluding with faculty. Then he blamed a small group of faculty and young alumni:
We found incontrovertible evidence of the existence of an organized, small group of faculty and recent alums working to undermine and ultimately cause the exit of President Newman. This group’s issues are born out of a real resistance to positive change at Mount St. Mary’s. Apparently they are not done with their personal attacks and are continuing, both directly and through others, to malign and denigrate President Newman and our plans for the university’s future by circulating mischaracterized accounts and flat-out falsehoods.
Since then Newman has reinstated the two faculty members he fired and the board has ceased criticizing students. For the last two weeks in February, board members have been participating in a listening campaign on campus, a retroactive attempt at shared governance, an element missing from this entire debacle from the beginning.
President Newman, in the meantime, has been basking in the conclusion of the polls conducted by students. He’s convinced he’s doing a good job and points to the student referendum on his leadership as empirical confirmation. Under the paradigm he ascribes to, surveys and polls carry equal weight with an official vote by the faculty. In this scenario college presidents become like politicians poll testing their popularity and courting student opinion before implementing new initiatives. Faculty beware. You thought a rigorous mid-term makes you unpopular. Just wait until the Newman/Coyne model of leadership is invoked and your new campus president stands on a bully pit denouncing the content of your courses as detestable for one reason or another.
With academic freedom hanging in the balance, this line of argument is not meant to minimize the authority of the faculty or the legitimate concerns of students. There is a system, already in place on most college campuses, that facilitates the courteous exchange of ideas in a setting conducive to discussion rather than confrontation. Shared governance, the missing element in this saga, is the appropriate vehicle by which universities express transparency, practice due process, and foster free speech. Mount St. Mary’s has governing documents and bylaws that have been most copiously ignored in the scrum that has characterized Simon Newman’s first year in office.
From the University of Missouri to Yale to Mount St. Mary’s, the turmoil on college campuses can be attributed to the under-application of a system of shared governance that has guaranteed student and faculty rights for hundreds of years. Accrediting organizations across the country, including the Middle States Commission on Higher Education Association, with which Mount St. Mary’s has complied for decades, identifies shared governance as a prime metric.
Simon Newman’s tenure at the Mount has been plagued with breaches of due process, a resistance to transparency, and attempts to thwart free speech. Without an engaged board counseling their inexperienced new president, Newman’s deficiencies have been quickly exposed. But, by fomenting mixed messages on shared governance, the Board of Trustees at Mount St. Mary’s set the stage for an impending disaster.
This is a cautionary tale for every university in America. The path to restoring sanity is not by treating university employees like chess pieces; not in hurling accusations and retracting them; and not in the ups-and-downs of poll testing. It’s in the process of shared governance that guarantees the rights of all and has made American higher education the envy of the world for generations.