Friday, February 12, 2016


by J J Cohen

I am posting here in more enduring form a collation of thoughts I've been disseminating on Facebook and Twitter. The issue is an important one -- at the heart of the future of the university, in fact.

Among the "innovations" dreamt by Simon Newman, chief-executive-and-entrepreneur-turned-president of Mount St. Mary’s University, is a freshmen survey that without revealing its purpose asks students intimate -- and one would thereby have assumed confidential -- questions about depression, financial worries, and learning disabilities. Despite its seeming humane concern for the well being of those newly transitioning to college life -- a bumpy period that deserves all the sympathy that staff and teachers can muster -- the survey was actually to be used to cull the student population and thereby better the university's retention rate. Those students to be escorted to the door of an institution where they had just arrived were described by President Newman as bunnies to be drowned or shot in the head. For questioning the ethics of such methods two Mount St. Mary’s University professors (one a tenured philosopher, the other the untenured advisor to the student newspaper that broke the story) were fired. That's the entrepreneurial, lean-and-efficient, business world spirit we hire university presidents to bring these days.

But wait, there's more. In "a first step of reconciliation and healing in the season of Lent and the Year of Mercy" (yes that is an actual quote from an actual university communication) the two fired professors have been told they may well be reinstated. Because, mercy. And Lent. I love this quotation from the InsideHigherEd piece: "President Newman called [fired professor Thane Naberhaus] and told him he would be reinstated in part because the Roman Catholic Church has [declared] a Year of Mercy." Even more, I love Professor Naberhaus's response to that offer by email: "Hell no." Naberhaus is not returning until Newman is gone. And for some additional context for President Newman's pious embrace of the Roman Catholic Year of Mercy, it is worth noting that he has also allegedly declared that the campus contains too many crucifixes and that "Catholic doesn't sell well."

Sell well.

Universities are not businesses. Students are neither customers nor products. Being a CEO or an entrepreneur likely disqualifies you for the job of university president rather than makes you the attractive candidate the advisory board stocked with rich donors believes. Universities exist for the intensification of the life of the mind, the betterment of the future, and the humane care of students, not as avid practitioners of the cult of the dollar. Colleges and universities are therefore best run by intellectuals. If you do not possess a PhD and have not composed some excellent books or articles that most people will never read, then you are woefully underqualified for the job. If your best claim to fame is that you amassed millions in riches without sharing that wealth immediately and widely, then enroll in an ethics or philosophy course and start again. But do not think that you are worthy to run an institution of higher learning -- or that you should be allowed anywhere near eighteen to twenty-one year old women and men.

Simon Newman demonstrates exactly where the belief that a successful business background qualifies one to lead a university leads -- and that destination, full of intimidated faculty and threatened students and a university losing its reputation, is nowhere good: not for young people, professors, staff or society. And yet I fear that President Newman, the man who would "drown the bunnies" and dismiss the students with financial and emotional needs, is both the present and the future of higher ed in the United States -- which is to say, the harbinger of higher education's end as a straightforward social good. Students with depression, financial anxieties, and learning disabilities should earn a college's care, not culling.  Comparing at risk students to bunnies to be drowned or shot with a gun is never acceptable. Metaphors matter (enroll in an English literature class, President Newman: I will let you audit mine, if you'd like). It is the obligation of tenured faculty to call out an administration like Newman's for its ethical violations. To do so is not actionable disobedience; it is not disloyalty; it is an affirmation of the utopia that higher education must strive always to become, even if in that striving it will always fall short. 

President Simon P. Newman of Mount St Mary's University is unfit to run a university and should resign. No university should henceforth hire a former CEO or entrepreneur to run the institution like a business. That refusal would be a significant step towards higher education becoming a place in which no student is shot, drowned, or shown the door because they are poor or having a tough time or because they are simply human. 


Anonymous said...

Noreen said...

Noreen said...

I'm proud of faculty at MSM, who stood up for their colleagues, voted "no confidence" on the president and let the pressure on the board. Also the student press there rocks!