When the School Head Is the Problem

Vol. 14 No. 7

trustees eletter vol14 no7 headproblem

Back in the summer of 2015, President Simon Newman of Mount St. Mary’s University developed a plan to improve the institution’s student retention numbers by culling 20–25 first-year students before the end of September. The federal government requires colleges and universities to submit the number of enrollees each semester, and the Mount’s cutoff date was September 25. The President’s office created a student survey to administer during freshman orientation, specifically designed to determine who to dismiss. The rationale was artificially to boost retention by 4%–5%.

Despite concerns that the plan was unethical and “deeply disturbing,” Newman moved forward on the plan. Newman was quoted by the student newspaper as saying that “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.” The controversy became more heated when two professors who objected to the president’s actions were abruptly terminated without severance. The provost, who also raised concerns, was demoted from his position.

Ultimately, Newman’s plan was thwarted when it missed the deadline. But the controversy continues, gaining national attention as professors from colleges and universities around the country signed a petition to reinstate the fired professors. The Mount, a private Catholic university, is now dealing with a public relations miasma as many claim the president’s plan violated the university’s Christian mission.

President Newman resigned from his position at Mount St. Mary’s on March 1, 2016.

So, how does this apply to private-independent schools?

Suppose, for example, the School Head does something that clearly conflicts with the school’s mission. Perhaps the Head faces legal action (e.g., sexual harassment, job discrimination) that may be harmful to the school. Is the Board prepared for such a situation?

Many potential problems involving the School Head can be obviated with the Head’s relationship with the Head Support and Evaluation Committee. Keeping the Head on track with the school’s mission and maintaining due diligence can often curtail thorny situations.

But what if this does not work and the Head becomes controversial, perhaps even wounding the school’s reputation? The circumstances may require firing the Head—always a drastic measure. The Board must have protocol in place for such a situation, and be prepared for the aftermath of poor public relations. Hiring an Interim Head may be required, which may also require some “smoothing over” with constituents.

Foremost, the Board must ensure the School Head contract includes a section detailing a rationale for terminating the Head for cause. The wording may be something similar to: “Should the Head breach this agreement or is terminated for cause (including but not limited to gross misconduct, insubordination, failure to perform), the School, as well as all other applicable remedies, may release the Head and cease all forms of compensation immediately.” Although the school may not be able to avoid a lawsuit, it’s prudent to have similar language in the contract to address this potential issue. However, only an attorney can offer proper and legal advice on this point.

Terminating a School Head for cause is one of the most serious actions a school can take. Rather than provoking the former Head to fight the for-cause finding, the school should put the situation to rest as quickly and as quietly as possible. Then, all parties can move forward and, most important, the school and its culture suffer less damage.

Additional ISM resources:
The Source for Trustees Vol. 13 No. 6 When the School Head Leaves “Under a Cloud”
The Source for Trustees Vol. 13 No. 6 The Basics of a Head Contract
The Source for Trustees Vol. 11 No. 6 Respectful and Constructive Board/School Head Relationships

Additional ISM resources for Gold Consortium members:
I&P Vol. 32 No. 1 The Board’s Contract With the School Head: Solidify Expectations, Define Relationships
I&P Vol 28 No. 16 Board/Head Relationships: Brutal Facts and Eternal Faith
ISM Publication: The Head’s Contract (e-book)

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