“Bunny-Drowning” President Sets Sights on Philosophers (Updated)

Philosophers are under attack at Mount St. Mary’s University in Emmitsburg, Maryland. The reason appears to be that they questioned the university president’s surreptitious attempt to improve his school’s retention rate by culling students ahead of the federal reporting deadline.

Thane Naberhaus, until yesterday a tenured associate professor of philosophy at Mount St. Mary’s University, was among those fired or demoted for an alleged lack of “loyalty” to the university. The Frederick News-Post reports that Naberhaus and Ed Egan (communications professor and faculty advisor to the student paper) were fired Monday as part of university president Simon Newman‘s response to the public-relations disaster following a student newspaper article about his plan to increase student retention rates. The president also removed Joshua Hochschild from his position as dean of the university’s College of Liberal Arts and David Rehm from his position as provost. Hochschild and Rehm are also philosophy professors.

Newman’s plan was to administer a survey pitched to first-year students as a “valuable tool that will help you discover more about yourself” and then use the results of the survey to cull 20-25 students from the freshman class prior to the deadline for submitting enrollment information to the federal government.

Inside Higher Ed has some coverage of the story here.

The student newspaper, The Mountain Echo, had obtained emails among administrators prior to the survey. From their report:

[Then-provost] Rehm wrote that he was “deeply concerned… on several fronts” about how the survey might be used…

Newman’s email continued: “My short term goal is to have 20-25 people leave by the 25th [of Sep.]. This one thing will boost our retention 4-5%. A larger committee or group needs to work on the details but I think you get the objective.”…

Rehm shared Newman’s email with a larger group comprised of Murry, Associate Provost Leona Sevick, then-Dean Josh Hochschild and Fr. Jim Donohue.

In an email sent at 11:03 p.m. on Aug. 21, Hochschild responded: “As I read this, in response to David’s concerns about how and whether survey results are communicated to students, Simon clarified a goal: to dismiss some students.”

“This new bit of information is deeply disturbing,” Hochschild wrote. “I already thought this survey was ill-conceived on many levels. If one of the intended uses is to identify students to dismiss, I think it is unethical. How can we in good conscience administer this?”

Hochschild’s email continued: “The survey’s introductory paragraphs almost persuaded me – this could be helpful to students, as part of a project of self-discovery…. But now, it seems that some responses to this survey could lead to drastic decisions. ‘There are no wrong answers’?!?!”

“If this is not an anonymous survey, nor even a confidential personality test, but a highly intrusive, and misleadingly framed administrative tool, can we proceed without disclosing to our students’ what’s at stake?”…

Newman continued to pursue the dismissal of 20-25 first-year students in the face of strong opposition from a small group of faculty and administrators, who were aware of his plan…

Newman said, “This is hard for you because you think of the students as cuddly bunnies, but you can’t.  You just have to drown the bunnies…put a Glock to their heads.”

According to The Frederick News-Post, Naberhaus received a termination letter from Newman on Monday saying that he

had violated his “duty of loyalty to [the] University” in unspecified “recent actions” that “clearly justify your termination of employment.” Naberhaus, who had tenure, said he was unsure why he was fired and is considering a lawsuit against the university… The letter states Naberhaus has been “designated persona non grata” and is not allowed to visit the campus or attend any university activities or sporting events on Mount property. Doing so “will result in legal proceedings” not specified in the letter.

The supposed “duty of loyalty” that Mount St. Mary’s faculty owe the university was not explained in any of the reports, nor is it clear it appears in any faculty contracts, the university’s faculty handbook, or other employment documents.

I’ll update this post with further information as it becomes available.

UPDATE: Coverage of the story in The Washington Post (via John Schwenkler), The Chronicle of Higher Education,  and Inside Higher EdIHE’s account contains this particular nugget:

Amid all the tensions, 12 faculty members at Mount St. Mary’s last week created a campus chapter of the American Association of University Professors. Monday’s dismissals brought the chapter’s membership down to 10.

UPDATE 2: John Schwenkler (FSU) has written a statement of protest. I encourage readers to sign it. The text reads, in part:

We the undersigned, as members of the community of scholars, protest the firings of Edward Egan and Thane Naberhaus from their faculty positions at Mount St. Mary’s University. The manner and circumstance of their dismissal raises serious questions about the respect given to moral conscience and intellectual freedom at Mount St. Mary’s. Of particular concern is that Prof. Egan was fired partly for actions taken in his role as faculty advisor to the university’s student newspaper, which first broke the stories leading to the present controversy. It is also alarming that these faculty were fired without any academic due process as required under AAUP guidelines and the customary standards of tenure.

You can read and sign the statement here. You can view the list of signatories here.

Mini-Update: in just 3 hours the statement already has around 1500 signatories.

Mount St Marys Philosophers

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