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: email@example.com
Baltimore Sun news tip contact: firstname.lastname@example.org, 410-332-6100