Three Lessons Mount St. Mary’s Can Teach Private School Heads
Vol. 14 No. 7
Higher education roiled this spring in the wake of the scandal from Mount St. Mary’s University, a private Catholic university in Emmitsburg, Maryland. In January 2016, the school’s student newspaper The Mountain Echo ran a special edition featuring the student retention plan of President Simon Newman. In addition to potentially unethical use of incoming student data to encourage freshmen to leave early, the President allegedly told a professor 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.”
After The Mountain Echo broke the story, the faculty advisor to the student newspaper and another faculty member who publicly criticized President Newman’s attrition plan were fired without due process in a seemingly retaliatory measure. The official reason for the dismissals was a breach of the faculty members’ “duty of loyalty” to the school.
Petitions to reinstate the dismissed professors garnered thousands of signatures from fellow academians. Alumni sent open letters to the Board detailing the “reckless and indefensible actions” witnessed beyond The Mountain Echo’s initial report. In the uproar of public debate, the firings were reversed, but the damage was done.
On March 1, 2016, President Newman resigned. “I believe it is the right course of action for the Mount at this time,” he said in a statement.
While Mount St. Mary’s picks up the pieces in the wake of this public relations hurricane, the debacle offers several lessons for astute School Heads of K-12 private-independent schools—besides the fact that “private” emails and conversations can be shared publicly in the name of whistleblowing.
1. Mission Trumps All
After The Mountain Echo’s exposé, previously silent alumni came forward to the Board of Trustees in an open letter, which details several disturbing incidents that occurred around the same time as the alleged “bunny” quote.
We’d like to draw your attention to this description of an alumni meeting with then-President Newman (emphasis added) :
During President Newman’s presentation that day he exhibited contempt for the Mount’s Catholic identity and tradition and called for a radical de-emphasis of the liberal arts education for which the university has been justly noted. Surveys, he explained, indicate that terms like liberal arts and philosophy do nothing for young people and that the Catholic Church is today less influential in the lives of the young than ever before. Only a few weeks after Pope Francis’s historic U.S. visit, our new president’s comments seemed both narrow and inaccurate.
What the alumni describe here is their former president’s complete and radical dismissal of Mount St. Mary’s stated mission, which describes a school “committed to education in the service of truth; we seek to cultivate a community of learners formed by faith, engaged in discovery, and empowered for leadership in the Church, the professions, and the world.”
If the public’s waning respect for a Catholic-oriented education has affected enrollment, as Newman apparently implied during that meeting, then the Board of Trustees must re-examine the school’s mission as part of its strategic planning. It is the duty of the President (or School Head) to bolster the mission of the school, not disparage it publicly—especially not in front of involved alumni.
If a School Head ever begins to feel that the mission of the school no longer resonates, then it is his or her duty to find a way to reconnect with the school’s mission and its execution. If the Head continues to be unable to wholeheartedly support the mission, he or she must resign in favor of a better-suited Head who can.
2. Accept Only Appropriate Students
Another portion of the alumni’s open letter describes former-President Newman’s outright dismissal of the needs of incoming students. According to the letter, Newman felt that “many Mount St. Mary’s students had ‘bad attitudes,’ were ‘judgmental,’ and did ‘not feel very good about themselves.’”
Consider this statement in light of Newman’s (failed) plan to use onboarding surveys as a way to more quickly identify at-risk students and encourage them to leave before federal reports were due. (This would artificially enhance the school’s retention rate by a projected 4-5%.) Both incidents illustrate a contempt for the caliber of student Mount St. Mary’s invited onto campus.
Newman’s frantic behavior points to a deeper problem than simply student dropout rates. If, as a School Head, you find yourself disappointed about the caliber of student entering the school, then the Admission Office is your first line of defense. Private-independent schools should only admit those students who are mission-appropriate to the school, which includes a base level of proficiency and a personal dedication to the ideals of the institution.
3. Preserve the Culture
Former-President Newman’s dogged persistence with his potentially unethical student attrition plan reveals an inability to acknowledge the school’s overall culture, as well as difficulty receiving criticism. He was so persistent in his pursuit of early identification of problematic students, the faculty had to resort to “running out the clock” and block the plan through inaction.
Multiple times, faculty members attempted to explain to him their reservations about the survey and its intended use, to no avail—thus inviting his “bad-metaphor-hall-of-fame” comment, as one Trustee put it. Newman also tried to enact his plans without the appropriate “larger committee” that he admitted in emails would be needed to truly implement an early-identification scheme in the longterm.
Newman had been hired from the private sector specifically to raise the school’s profile nationally and increase its endowment—meaning his position as the public face of the school was even more vital than normal, considering the presumed higher focus on potential donors. This mindset was supported by the Board of Trustees, but the New York Times reports that he clashed with faculty, given his “sharp-elbowed business approach.”
Newman’s focus on the bottom line, combined with his overstepping the bounds on a fundamental institution of higher education—tenure and mediated dismissal—resulted in a public vote of no confidence and the censure of the national academic community.
Faculty members shouldn’t be treated as tools with which higher goals are achieved, or obstacles to implementation. They—and the broader school community—are allies in your quest as School Head to achieve greatness for your school.
If your plan isn’t receiving the buy-in you expected and need for it to flourish, then it’s necessary to determine why you’re getting push back—or acknowledge that this plan won’t work as presented and must be retooled. Trying to bulldoze and bully an entire school community to fall into your plans won’t work and will backfire.
To add to that, what works at one school or community may not be what moves another. Applying the practices from a previous position (like firing due to “lack of loyalty” without due process) to a new organization can be dangerous, especially if a School Head is new to his/her position. A trust has yet to form between the new administrator and the faculty, and dictatorial actions like Newman’s can quickly break whatever olive branches are extended.
As the dust settles over the furor at Mount St. Mary’s, administrators can only shake their heads and move on to rebuilding broken or bent relationships that have been damaged by the fallout of Newman’s “culling” plan for the freshmen. As School Heads, this incident reminds everyone that matter how critical a problem is, it’s only with the trust and support of your community that an issue can be resolved.
Additional ISM resources:
The Source for Trustees Vol. 13 No. 3 The Board's Role in Faculty Culture
The Source for Trustees Vol. 14 No. 7 When the School Head Is the Problem
The Source for Business Managers Vol. 13 No. 9 New Research: Toxic Coworkers Can "De-energize" Your Workforce
Additional ISM resources for Gold Consortium members:
I&P Vol. 29 No. 8 Mission and Leadership: A Primer in Mission-Oriented 'Change' Problems