University President: "Drown the Bunnies"

Board of TrusteesIn yet another case of an email plaguing a leader, Simon Newman, president of Mount St. Mary's U. of Maryland, says his words were taken out of context. The president announced an objective to retain freshmen: "My short-term goal is to have 20-25 people leave by the 25th. 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."

Although this sounds harsh, an assistant professor of history recalled a conversation with Newman saying something worse: "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."

On the face of it, we can understand Newman's intent: to improve the university's 75% retention rate and reduce the current loss of 70 students after their first semester at school. Newman wants to catch students who will likely fail as early as possible-perhaps in time to get a tuition refund: "It's moral to at least have the conversation and say, You know, you can get all of your money back if this isn't the place for you. I'd rather you be happy." The university also has programs in place to check up on students who, for example, miss classes, and try to support them. Longer term, the university is trying to get out of debt and wants to increase its admission standards. 

Despite the controversy, in a letter, the university's board of trustees supports the president and condemns faculty and alumni working against him. The board also passed "a unanimous resolution of full confidence."

Discussion Starters:

  • One issue is how the student paper, The Mountain Echo, handled the story. Read more about this in The Chronicle article and discuss your perspective.
  • Assess the board of trustees' letter. How well does it support the president and put the issue to rest?