“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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babygirl
babygirl
5 years ago

Shared governance is easy when you just fire anyone who opposes you.

This is so incredibly sad and infuriating. What can we do?Report

John Schwenkler
John Schwenkler
5 years ago

Thank you, Justin, for posting about this. I taught at Mount St. Mary’s for several years, and Thane and Ed were my colleagues and friends. The situation there is terrible.

Here is another story in the Washington Post with some remarks from Thane about the “loyalty” business: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/grade-point/wp/2016/02/08/controversy-deepens-after-professors-who-opposed-university-president-get-fired/?hpid=hp_local-news_mountstmarys-1215am%3Ahomepage%2Fstory

Regarding the question above about what can be done — right now this news needs to be shared, loudly and widely, and if anyone is so inclined then they should contact the President’s office (tel. (301) 447-5600; [email protected]) and College of Liberal Arts, where the fired faculty were housed (tel. (301) 447-7435; and the interim Dean, I believe, is Rev. Jim Donohue, [email protected]).

I will prepare a petition that members of the academic community can sign — or pass along one that’s prepared by someone else — but let me wait a few hours before doing this. There is one more faculty firing that’s apparently about to happen.Report

Michael Kremer
Michael Kremer
5 years ago

Is there a crowd funding site to support the fired professors?Report

John Schwenkler
John Schwenkler
Reply to  Michael Kremer
5 years ago

I believe something is in the works. I will post something here as soon as I know of one.Report

Kate Norlock
5 years ago

Thanks, John Schwenkler, for the information. I hope there is some way that colleagues can help.
(No one’s taken up the big issue yet: Isn’t a Glock to the head a bit of overkill for a bunny? Are bunnies very difficult to take down?)Report

Rabbit of Caerbannog
Rabbit of Caerbannog
Reply to  Kate Norlock
5 years ago

Since you asked — no, we’re not dangerous.Report

Tim
Tim
Reply to  Kate Norlock
5 years ago

I warned you, but did you listen to me? Oh, no, you *knew*, didn’t you?Report

jason
jason
5 years ago

Didn’t we learn once about the great benefits of this particular breed of “loyalty” from Adolf Eichmann?Report

Jennifer Ann Frey
Jennifer Ann Frey
5 years ago

Thank you so much for drawing attention to this story. I do hope that philosophers will support faculty at the Mount. I also hope that other disciplines will pay attention. I believe that an assistant professor in history is about to be fired.

The catholic moral tradition gives pride of place to moral conscience. So all this is dripping in irony as well.Report

Stephen
Stephen
5 years ago

Let this be a warning to universities everywhere about the dangers of hiring someone from the business world (and the cut-throat world of private equity, no less) as a leader. This is exactly what we should expect from someone with this background.

“Mr. Newman has almost 30 years of experience working as an executive with a strong background in private equity, strategy consulting, and operations. He is the former managing director of the private equity fund JP Capital Partners, as well as president and CEO of Cornerstone Management Group, founded in 1997.
“During his career he has started or co-founded four different businesses, completed more than $33 billion in transactions, and raised more than $3 billion in equity funding for ventures and bids he originated. He has led several business turnarounds and delivered more than $200 million in profit improvements.
“He started his career in consulting working with Bain & Co and LEK Consulting where he managed the media and entertainment practice working with clients such as Warner Bros., Disney, and Universal Studios. He has also worked at Canal + International, Liberty Media and the investment bank, Wasserstein & Perella.”Report

William Lewis
William Lewis
Reply to  Stephen
5 years ago

And the Chairman of the Board who unequivocally supports President Newman is, you guessed it, the leader of a financial services company.

http://readme.readmedia.com/John-E-Coyne-Named-Chairman-of-the-Board-at-Mount-St-Marys-University/8400091

http://www.bloomberg.com/research/stocks/private/snapshot.asp?privcapId=4562178Report

Daniel Isaac
Daniel Isaac
Reply to  Stephen
5 years ago

Stephen,
Right on the money (pun intended). I’d also add that is only advanced degree is an MBA and he literally had not spent a single day in the employ of a university or college before being handed this job. Given that higher education in our country continues to be defined more and more by business model-think and less and less by the quality of the education delivered then perhaps we should be less appalled by what has transpired and realize that this was an inexorable inevitability.Report

Ross McKinney
Ross McKinney
5 years ago

What a sick man and sick school to support a leader like him. Any student who would go there now is, in fact, a drowning bunny.Report

John Schwenkler
John Schwenkler
5 years ago

Here is a link to fill out a statement of protest from members of the academic community: http://tinyurl.com/msmprotestform
And here is the statement with its signatories: http://tinyurl.com/msmaryprotestReport

Alicia Finch
Alicia Finch
Reply to  John Schwenkler
5 years ago

I posted this link on FB and someone asked me whether grad students “can/are encouraged to sign.” Thoughts?Report

John Schwenkler
John Schwenkler
Reply to  Alicia Finch
5 years ago

Sorry, Alicia, that I just saw this. I encourage graduate students to sign if they are working toward careers in academia.Report

Alicia Finch
Alicia Finch
Reply to  John Schwenkler
5 years ago

Thank you, John, for all that you’re doing!Report

Jason Burke Murphy
Jason Burke Murphy
5 years ago

Schools need to organize to offer employment to wrongfully fired academics.

I hope everyone who reads this signs the petition and shares it.Report

Kathy Mattingly
Kathy Mattingly
5 years ago

As a Social Ministries liaison from my parish to the (Roman Catholic) Diocese of San Jose, CA, I am deeply angered ad saddened by this injustice and pray that these wrongs will be righted.Report

John Protevi
John Protevi
5 years ago

The whole “bunnies / Glock” thing reeks of corporate machismo. You could even say, for the sake of argument, that it has its place in the corporate world, but *precisely on corporate bottom-line principles* it’s a wretchedly bad move at a small Catholic school, where the parents are entrusting their children to you for the 18-22 year range. If I were on the Board, I would vote to can the guy not simply for “violating Catholic principles of care for the person” but also for “hurting the image of the school,” which is what he fired our colleagues for doing.Report

babygirl
babygirl
5 years ago

I submit that if there is “an organized, small group … working to undermine and ultimately cause the exit of President Newman” then it is President Newman himself (and so the group is very small and very organized indeed). I can hardly imagine a more concerted effort to undermine his presidency than the one he himself has undertaken.Report

Jonathan Gingerich
Jonathan Gingerich
5 years ago

Thane Naberhaus was one of the first philosophy teachers I ever had–he taught me introductory ethics in my first year of college at Georgetown University. I learned a great deal from him about careful philosophical writing, and he was an exceptionally dedicated teacher. (Which is not to suggest that Newman’s retaliation would be any more justified if targeted at any less outstanding teacher.)Report

Greg
Greg
5 years ago

Request for clarification: What does the appeal to AAUP guidelines have to do with the (to me, at least, obvious) wrongness of President Newman’s firings? Does Mount St. Mary’s subscribe to them somehow?Report

Nikolay Sokolov
5 years ago

But do not many philosophers pay for the killing of, and then eat, animals, for pleasure and happiness? This is more moral posturing from what I have heard about – the New Thinking.

Best,
NSReport

Prezident Newman
Prezident Newman
5 years ago

There’s a twitter parody account that is beginning to document this story:

https://twitter.com/prezidentnewmanReport

Melody Hill
5 years ago

I hope this sparks discussion not only concerning the encouragement of critique and observation from faculty, without negative repercussions or the administration’s response to Newman–but of the mental health issues that the “struggling students” may have been dealing with. How to deal with such “issues”, since it seems decided that “putting a Glock to their heads” isn’t appropriate.Report

brm
brm
5 years ago

Step 1: Fire philosophy professors
Step 2: ?????
Step 3: Profit

It’s always amazing to see folks who lead a university and fail to grasp that academic reputations take generations to build and a day to destroy. The MSMU board should drown their own puppy and get a new president. It’s the humane thing to do.Report

Wacousta Jones
Wacousta Jones
5 years ago

Aminta, trouble at the Academy today—
Lycidas and Thenot expelled!
Unwilling to take blowjobs for snow jobs,
alas, now they have no jobs.
And Colin hides in his office,
afraid to answer the phone,
certain he must join them in exile.

We are fortunate indeed who are paid to think,
but the cost of speaking is on the rise.
So we teach the young ones to reason and talk,
but prudently—
O, Aminta, ’twere better not to think at all!

We serve at the pleasure of practical men:
influence peddlers and merchants
who never touched laurel but to sell it
who would rather fill seats than minds
who would starve faculties and libraries
to feed their army of marketers.
Yea, marketers! in whose quarters Athena
is shacked like a slave and daily defiled,
obliged to hide her shame with press releases.

Forgotten are the days when learning
was free and, freed by learning, we discovered
something unknown to family and neighbours
and the temple fathers, our selves.
My pupils pay to learn and learn to pay
and stay the sons and daughters
their parents want to know.
Anyway, how else can you get a job in Emmitsburg
or Ottawa or anywhere else?

I will turn up for work tomorrow
and turn on the powerpoint
and do my best to turn on the charm,
thinking of student evaluations which must begin soon:
a smiling, bearded, privileged instrument
of bad change, a coward—a scab,
which is anyone who can be content when others are not.
No, I am not happy, of course, but neither am I
with Lycidas and Thenot robeless outside the gates
or with poor Colin under his desk.Report

mary
mary
5 years ago

While both the President AND the faculty tarnish the University with their comments and actions-Has anyone stopped to think of the students-Especially the new students?
1.Should he have been hired for this university?
2.Should he have made such an outrageous statement in a personal email?
3.Should the email have been brought to the STUDENT level?
4Should faculty be emailing 1st and 2nd year students directly telling them to transfer?

I think EVERYONE owns a piece of this very ugly situation and perhaps should still themselves to think about the students.Report