The president of Mount St. Mary’s University (“the Mount”), Simon Newman, has made national news recently, first for his comments about struggling first-year-student “bunnies” that need “drowning” or a “Glock to the head,” and second for his firing of two faculty members for their role in making these comments public. Figures in and out of the academy have criticized Newman’s decisions. There is even a petition condemning the president for conduct in violation both of right conduct and of Catholic social teaching concerning higher education. For the purpose of full disclosure, my name is on that petition. I write this article, however, not with the intention of condemning Newman. There is enough condemnation already—all well earned. Rather, I write to explain how universities today have reached this point and why the practice of hiring figures like Newman has failed.
Mismatched Skills and Vocation
For years, boards of trustees have brought in successful department deans and research professors to ask: “OK, you’re a successful professor with lots of students and publications and grants—can you fundraise?” The answer came not at the interview but in the critical first few years of the presidency. This model remains a common enough practice and with common enough success.
Even so, many boards have sought the talents of another, less obvious group: corporate executives. The reasoning is as follows: a successful corporate executive had to start a company or take the reins of an old one. In the process, she had to make tough decisions about personnel, investment, and any number of contingencies that woke her up at 3:00 AM demanding an immediate decision. Once out from behind the desk, this same executive then spent years consulting with boards and business leaders about how to invest in growing markets or when to cut losses. After decades of experience in the boardroom, how hard could it be to run a college?
How Did We Get Here?
Why have trustees, much like American political parties, shifted from wanting experienced insiders to inexperienced outsiders? The first reason, as one might have guessed, is money. Universities face high costs due to increased state and federal regulations. These regulations are unfunded mandates that, in turn, require expanded administrations to oversee compliance. The result is that universities must dedicate revenue to administrative compliance. The only other option would be to lose accreditation, which would cut the university off from federal student loans and grants as well as federal research money. No university can long survive without either (though there are notable exceptions at the college, not university, level); hence, they solve the problem by complying with the mandates and raising tuition. Because the federal government controls the loans, the government effectively provides the funding—not at its own risk, however, but at the risk of the student borrowing them.
Such an arrangement would make sense if tuition were relatively low and the assurances of a career were high—but those conditions are not in place. Tuition at universities has risen in the past few decades. Normally, international students are the only ones left paying the full stated amount. University student recruitment often uses high up-front tuition to negotiate with top-tier students. When presenting the value of their education, universities point to Ivy League tuition levels to communicate Ivy League value, but then they reveal to the top-tier student that the university is willing to cut the tuition in half. Even as stated tuition goes up, the tuition paid has increased at a slower rate—one insufficient to meet rising costs.
Despite growing skepticism about future income, college graduates remain more employable. Regardless of preparation or calling, students keep applying. Therefore, universities find themselves spending resources to retain less prepared students: for example, the establishment of writing centers to help with composition, expanded library staff to aid student research, and administrators focused on meeting troubled student needs before final grades come due.
Add to all these expenses the amenities arms race, attorney’s fees, insurance, and maintenance, and the importance of presidential fundraising comes into clear focus. Yet, one may still ask, even if money is tight at many of American universities, why not hire the faculty who know the ins and outs best?
The answer is that trustees across the nation no longer trust faculty. In fact, there is a nonprofit, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA), dedicated to providing points of view different from that of university faculty about the future of their colleges. Even if not all trustees look to ACTA, they still keep up with the national news. For example, they read about the potential for technological disruption, and they want their universities to lead the way. Hence, the Board of Visitors at the University of Virginia, wrongly, tried to sack President Teresa Sullivan, a sociologist by training, when she resisted Board demands to build a large online presence.
The recent student protests across the nation did not help matters, either. Fairly or not, faculty appeared as barely restrained fascists seeking to mobilize innocent, unwitting students for a revolution that would, if successful, simply hire more faculty to stir up student protests. Why would trustees want to hire from among this strange mix of troublemakers when they could just hire one of their own?
Mount 2.0 and Students as “Collateral Damage”
According to Newman’s video at the Office of the President, he was preparing the college for “Mount 2.0.” According to Baltimore Business Journal, one major goal was “to develop a five-year plan that includes ways to draw stronger connections between the university and the business world. He wants it to become more market focused, training students to be effective leaders in their industry.” Newman rejected the Mount’s traditional Catholic mission and liberal-arts focus in favor of a corporate university. One of the fired faculty (subsequently reinstated), Thane Naberhaus, claimed that Newman cared little for campus Catholic culture with its “Catholic jihadis” and, in an unfortunate turn of phrase, its “too many bleeding crucifixes.”
To increase revenue, Newman wanted to increase enrollment; the first problem was that “if you go to the marketplace, Catholic doesn’t sell, liberal arts doesn’t sell.” So Newman wanted to secularize America’s second-oldest Catholic university (founded 1808), adjacent to a Catholic seminary and adjacent to the National Shrine of St. Elizabeth Anne Seton. Seton, the first native-born American ever canonized, left such an enduring legacy that, as recently as Pope Francis’s first visit to America in 2015, President Barack Obama gave the Holy Father the original key to Stone House where she spent her later years as a Sister of Charity. With the time-tested strengths and proud history of the Mount, one wonders: Is the issue that the Catholic liberal arts do not “sell” or that Newman doesn’t want to “sell” them?
Next, he wanted to introduce tough standards early to clear out weak students, which he called “collateral damage,” to make room for stronger ones. The overall increase in student quality and, necessarily, retention would directly affect ranking and, therefore, directly improve the Mount’s ability to attract stronger students. In the meantime, Newman treated the faculty as threats to his plan because they wanted to educate even the “bunnies” in need of drowning. Newman wanted faculty to hold a metaphorical “Glock to their heads” to ensure the students knew that they can be replaced. The faculty set goals for students, and the students paid tuition to meet those goals and get the coveted degree—or they could hit the bricks. Yet, oddly, Newman also regarded potential students as “customers” uninterested in liberal arts or Catholicism—a paradox that makes little sense. In short, Newman wanted faculty to behave like managers and students like employees and both under the direction of the board and its CEO. Indeed, the trustees have acted like a corporate board. John E. Coyne III, chair of the Board of Trustees, defended Newman in an email to the student newspaper that broke the original story.
The current controversy seems to be part of the early efforts—which continue apace—to implement Mount 2.0. Newman replaced the ousted Provost, David Rehm, with Jennie Hunter-Cevera, a failed gubernatorial appointee with known problems working with faculty at the University of Maryland Biotechnology Institute.
The Wisdom of God’s Foolishness
The problem with Mount 2.0 is that it could not be more antithetical to Ex Corde Ecclesiae, St. John Paul the Great’s 1990 papal encyclical. It explains the purpose of the Catholic university as, “an academic community, which, in a rigorous and critical fashion, assists in the protection and advancement of human dignity and of a cultural heritage through research, teaching and various services offered to the local, national and international communities.” To that end, the Catholic university must cast “the light of the Catholic faith upon the growing treasure of human knowledge” and remain faithful “to the Christian message as it comes to us through the Church” in “service to the people of God and of the human family.”
When examining the defense of the Newman presidency, one finds no language of this sort—which is no surprise, since “Mount 1.0” meets these criteria. If the Mount already serves the Church, then what does Mount 2.0 serve? Does firing faculty for Mount 2.0 cohere with the call of Ex Corde Ecclesiae to university teachers? It says they should “set the content, objectives, methods, and results of research in an individual discipline within the framework of a coherent world vision” and are “called to be witnesses and educators of authentic Christian life, which evidences attained integration between faith and life, and between professional competence and Christian wisdom.”
When students struggle at the Mount, does Newman’s plan satisfy St. John Paul’s call? Ex Corde Ecclesiae says that students must “pursue an education that combines excellence in humanistic and cultural development with specialized professional training. Most especially, they are challenged to continue the search for truth and for meaning throughout their lives . . . [and] to deepen a Christian way of life that is authentic.”
This language of “leadership,” “profession,” and “discipline” has a surface resemblance to Newman’s, but the difference comes with the language of the “human spirit” and the ultimate aim of forming a “Christian life.” A Christian life does not preclude extending the mission of the Mount to include preparation for business—but it certainly precludes the new mission Newman has expressed in Mount 2.0, the methods he has used to pursue that mission, and most of all the methods he and the Board have used to fire faculty concerned about “academic ideals” and “the principles of an authentically human life.” Someone accustomed to corporate culture may find these values unusual, but they are the very core of a Catholic university.
Minding One’s Business
Corporate executives should not be university presidents. They cannot help but fail. Newman is certainly not alone in his failure; the recent University of Iowa fiasco revealed another improvident ballistics metaphor. The assumption trustees make with these hires is that universities should be run like businesses—but as Ex Corde Ecclesiae (to say nothing of prudence) makes quite clear, Catholic universities are contemplative and investigative ventures into the nature of God and His creation. Even secular, public universities engage in a similar effort of researching philosophical and scientific questions. These ventures require financial support, which the president helps secure—and no more. Turning a contemplative venture into a corporate one requires violating all the reasons the university exists in the first place, so that faculty interest in student formation is misinterpreted as “cuddling” and open debate among faculty about the future of the college as “fear and disparity [sic].”
The fact that university presidents and corporate executives have some resemblances does not mean that the organizations they manage are the same. The greatest shock is that this lesson needed learning in the first place. After all, Plato explained as much thousands of years ago, something the hostage-bunnies of the Mount may yet still learn. For now.
James M. Patterson is Visiting Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at Gettysburg College.