An Angry Alumna

For graduates of a tiny liberal arts college that hardly anyone knows about, it’s always exciting to see your alma mater’s name in the international news.

Except, of course, when it’s in the news for doing something  you think is completely unethical – something even Donald Trump might consider shady – in complete defiance of everything the school has stood for over a span of 200 years.

Yesterday my news feed was flooded with stories of my beloved alma mater, Mt. St. Mary’s University and not one of them was good.

During the last decade, Mt. St. Mary’s has changed drastically from the school I knew. It is no longer a college, but a university. It has moved away from its intellectual, liberal arts focus toward a more business-minded emphasis. The school wanted more prestige and needed to make more money. And so things had to change. The leadership steered the school away from its traditional values into a realm more fitting for a corporation seeking to expand its profit margins.

Consider the news that came out of Mt. St. Mary’s yesterday. According to the school’s newspaper, The Mountain Echo, which was used as a resource for a later article published in the Washington Post, the newly appointed president of the university created a freshman questionnaire purportedly to “help students discover more about themselves”, which was to be used instead to cull students whose responses labeled them as being at-risk, with the goal of improving the school’s retention rates.

Higher education institutions are required to submit to the federal government the total number of students enrolled each semester. This number is then used to calculate the freshman retention rate, which is a factor that contributes to many students’ college selections. If a large chunk of a class’ population drops out after the first year, it could indicate something rotten in the state of Denmark.

Mt. St. Mary’s president Simon Newman had the bright idea that if the school got rid of students  who were destined to fail anyway ­before they had to calculate and submit their enrollment numbers, then the retention rate would be higher. Voila! And the best part – he’d actually be doing those students a service by saving them the wasted money of a semester’s tuition, room, and board.

When discussing this matter with faculty — who as a whole do  not support this plan —  President Newman urged them not to think of freshmen as “cuddly bunnies” with this charming metaphor:  “You just have to drown the bunnies … put a Glock to their heads.”

Because in a bunny-eat-bunny kind of world, you have to take out the runts before they get devoured.

Tough love has its merits, or so they say. I’m not very good at it myself.  But injustice is injustice, and that is what we are facing here. You can’t establish the certainty that a student will fail based on a survey he takes during freshman orientation. In fact, you can’t be certain a student will fail until they actually fail. You can’t treat a group of kids embarking on the educational journey that will shape their future like a herd of cattle being fattened for the market.

It’s disturbing to me that any group of leaders directing a university could think this way.

But what is worse, in my opinion, is that this decision came from a Catholic college that has always prided itself not only on its commitment to academic excellence but also on the strength of its community.

The community at the Mount is, or was, its greatest asset. When I was a student, we knew our professors personally. They took us out for beers and invited us into their homes. I babysat their kids. They treated us like equals, encouraging our curiosity and fostering our intellectual growth.

The community I was a part of helped freshman – and sophomores and juniors and seniors – who were struggling academically. They helped us when we were struggling personally. They invested in us. A small minority of students failed or left for other reasons, but at least they had a fair chance.

The community I was a part of was, in the most powerful sense of the word, a community. We had a shared identity that united us and defined us. And for me, having been part of that community continues to shape who I am today, nearly 15 years after my graduation.  The older I get, the more I realize how vital it is for me to be a part of something larger than myself. I used imagine that I would find my greatest fulfillment as a globe-trotting idealist, saving the world from itself.  Now, I know that my happiness is as deep as the roots I have formed. I have the Mount to thank for that.

The direction President Newman is taking Mt. St. Mary’s is the wrong one and his methods are unconscionable. It needs to be stopped. I’m hopeful that the negative media attention will force him and the board of trustees to change the course they has chosen. But in the meantime, it looks like it’s time for some strongly worded letters.

***

If, like me, you are a Mount graduate or a concerned member of the Baltimore Archdiocese (or if you just enjoy writing strongly worded letters) and you also feel the need to state your objection to the direction MSM is taking, here are some helpful links:

Contact information for the University cabinet: http://msmary.edu/presidents_office/university-cabinet/

Office of the Archbishop of Baltimore: http://www.archbalt.org/about-us/offices/archbishop-office/index.cfm Email: archbishop@archbalt.org

Baltimore Sun news tip contact: newstips@baltimoresun.com, 410-332-6100

 

 

 

 

 

14 thoughts on “An Angry Alumna

  1. I’ve been following this. As a parent this attitude terrifies me. I consider educating my kids (our kids) as an investment in our society. Not a right, not an entitlement, not even a privilege an investment. Certainly it’s an investment in the individual and some investments go bad. It is, more importantly, an investment in society. A democratic republic needs people trained to think, to inquire, and to ask painful questions if it is to function. This university president’s attitude is an attack on the viability of our society. Yes it’s an incompetent approach to education but it’s much more and much worse than that.

  2. Any time you have the fed gov’t providing funds, they want numbers crunched and data produced for justification. Your college/university is not the only one doing this. It’s sad and disgusting what people/institutions will do for money. There is no way retention rates are this good without the same manipulation.
    http://www.aol.com/article/2016/01/11/colleges-where-freshmen-usually-return/21295443/?icid=maing-grid7%7Cbon1-c%7Cdl34%7Csec1_lnk2%26pLid%3D-1464213775

  3. Could the problem be with the government? When numbers are required, and a non-desirable number impacts the school adversely, what can a university do? Fudge the numbers, or find a way to “massage” the numbers would be an answer. I don’t agree with the “Glock the bunnies” approach, but maybe the problem is higher up the food chain. Can the tail wag the dog?

  4. Bravo! I am happy your Mount education prepared you to be able to look at this issue and see through the mess. Here is the problem: it appears although the conversation about this situation has already started to slow down. More comments have appeared on social media that show that people actually believe the lies told by the President, and that they missed in his “Response” in the Washington Post that he never actually addressed the concerns! Even worse, the Chair of the Board is backing him without any indication he looked into this issue with a critical eye and most recently, someone posting on behalf of Board member Michael Holly also expressed support in the Washington Post comment section.

    How anyone can read the Echo’s articles including direct quotes from emails, faculty – and see that the President himself does not dispute his quote – and thus not see that the actual plan was to use this unethical survey to push students out before they affected the retention states is insane! Or, you have to decide who is lying: the President and the Chair of the Board; or the Provost, Associate Provost, and several faculty members. There are too many confirmed facts to be a “misunderstanding” or “out of context.”

    Do not let this story die! The Mount is an amazing place that needs an ethical President and an ethical Board of Trustees. While I understand the Mount needs to keep its reputation, I believe the only way to salvage the reputation is to dismiss this terrible leader and demand that the Board address its issues as well.

    • Don’t let this story die? Are you serious? This is far from a story and not even a truthful one at that. Taking a persons comments in a private conversation and twisting them to fit a certain agenda is immature and spiteful. If a handful of people could see past their own personal opinions and agendas they would see the President has a smart, intelligent and successful plan in place to get the school out of extreme debt and make our school relevant again.
      No person is perfect and his example was clearly not the best but to say he doesn’t want the students to succeed or that he’s guilty of making the university no longer a community is wrong, President Powell killed the Mount community, making it nearly unrecognizable. President Newman is trying to bring the mount community back, not only by creating programs to keep kids involved but making campus fun again. If there should be outrage, it should have been 10 years ago with Powell, not now with Newman. You know why there wasn’t? Because it didn’t affect any of the professors bottom lines. But now when someone with actual good ideas and ways to help us comes along, what’s the first thing they do? They create drama and propaganda against the President. Using naive students as tools to justify their means is selfish and making Mount St Mary’s look bad. Stop spreading lies, layout his plan and let the students decide what’s right.

  5. I am also a fellow Mount alum. I am sorry you have not done the proper research to know and understand what President Newman is actually trying to do. He isn’t trying to kick out the few that MAY fail, he’s trying to reach out to them with a program that gets them involved at the first signs of failure, to have the discussion of ‘what do you want out of college?’, ‘how can we get you involved?’ and if all else fails, ‘do you think it’s best you stay here?’. Not everyone is ready for what they think college is and he’s trying to put together a program that addresses those kids and help them, even if that help means, realizing they should leave now before they waste $15,000 and have to leave after the first semester.

    President Newman is bringing fresh ideas to the school that will help us lourish and bring us back relevancy. You read one article and assume you know all of the pieces that this man is putting together. You don’t. Did he use bad phrasing? Possibly, I don’t know, I wasn’t part of that discussion nor did I get to hear a recording of it, did you? So we are taking the word of one professor. Okay, but before we all judge and jump all over the President because of a ratings headline, let’s try and do a little more research about the program he’s discussing and the steps he’s taking to help students out.

    The Mount professors as a whole do support him and his ideas, including this one. You can’t say they don’t based on an article, unless you interviewed the majority of them, did you?

    President Newman has been seen and involved on campus more then President Powell in the 15 years he was there. President Newman cares about The Mount community, he cares about the students and for him to be judged based off that article is, frankly, crap. Research the programs that President Newman is in the process of implementing and I believe you’ll be sorry you wrote this article.

    I am proud to have President Newman at our school and I am looking forward to seeing his plans put into place.

    • Thank you for your comment and your insight. My opinion of the direction MSM has been taking comes mostly from personal contacts I’ve maintained with faculty, but recent articles from the Echo and beyond have solidified concerns I’ve had for several years.
      I think that among MSM alumni, there are significant differences in opinion on what is best for our alma mater. We all seem to agree on our affection for the school, but we don’t all agree on the same vision for it. I would have more respect for (and be more willing to listen to) the administration and board of trustees if they were to acknowledge the concerns of those of us who have a different vision from theirs. So far, their reaction to criticism has been dismissive or accusatory. I believe our concerns are legitimate and deserve to be addressed as such.

      • I’m sorry, several years? This is Newman’s first year as active President. If you should be upset, it should be with Powell. He’s the one who changed us to a university, he’s the one that ran is into a $5 million debt, he’s the one who made over half the students leave campus by making drinking on campus stricter. Newman is not guilty. Did you know a legal drinking age student last year got fined $200 and alcohol classes for having more beers in her trash then allowed? They counted her beers! I think the rule is you can’t have more than 10 beers a person, which is fine but, who takes out here trash everyday when they’re in college?. Examples like this are from rules Powell created.
        Nobody stays on campus on the weekend anymore, it’s a completely different atmosphere from 15 years ago, and that’s not Newman’s fault. Put the blame at the feet of the proper person.

      • Yes, several years. I’m aware that the changes started under Powell. That was kind of my point– what I see as being problematic with the direction MSM is taking is something that began years ago. And instead of changing direction, it seems to me that the current administrative body is taking the school further down a road I don’t want the school to follow.

  6. I very much agree with tyoungblood8, not about the underage drinking policies, but about much else. I have been teaching at the Mount for 16 years now, so I think I can speak from some experience. I also don’t agree with this: ” If there should be outrage, it should have been 10 years ago with Powell, not now with Newman. You know why there wasn’t? Because it didn’t affect any of the professors bottom lines.” The reason is too long a story for this post, and isn’t relevant to the present topic.
    I love teaching at the Mount and interacting with my students and my colleagues. I have taught freshmen each year and each year in my class have had at least one student who would have benefitted from having his/her money refunded, and gone to live at home and go to another school… but they didn’t and left at the end of the semester having failed almost every class.

    About an hour ago the Chair of the Board of Trustees posted a message on the main website about these events; I urge you to read it! http://msmary.edu/Message_from_the_Board

    • Thank you for your comment Sister; I appreciate the dialogue. I remember you from my time at MSM and I respect your opinion and your position at the school. I did read the message from the Board yesterday afternoon when it was posted. I’m genuinely sorry to say that rather than giving me more confidence in the leadership, it only made me more wary of their motives. I thought the tone of the message was condescending and dismissive. It gave me the impression that the Board is trying not only to invalidate the views of those who disagree with their position, but also to suggest that anyone who disagrees with the Board is actively working against the best interests of the school in pursuit of their own agenda. The response from the President and the Board throughout all this has seemed, to me, like an assertion of their authority and the superiority of their position over any other. Yesterday’s letter in particular gave me (and others) the message loud and clear that, despite paying lip service to the idea of bringing everyone to the table, they will brook no dissent from students, faculty, or alumni.
      Thanks again for commenting. I hope everyone at the school is safe and warm during the blizzard.

  7. Pingback: When Speech Isn’t Free | And Another Thing, Hon

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