Controversy over fired professors at Mount St. Mary's goes national

The American Association of University Professors, a national advocacy group, wrote an open letter to the University's president characterizing his actions as 'fundamentally at odds with basic standards of academic due process.'

Bill Green/The Frederick News-Post via AP
Snow covers the ground in front of Bradley Hall at Mount St. Mary's University in Emmitsburg, Md. A plan to identify freshmen most likely to fail has erupted into a scandal, faculty firings and a demotion at Mount St. Mary's University after the Catholic school's president reportedly likened the students to baby rabbits that should be killed.

The president of a Catholic university in Maryland is now in the national limelight after he fired two professors, and demoted another, a move seen as retribution against faculty who had opposed his policies.

Mount St. Mary's University president Simon Newman fired Edward Egan, the campus newspaper adviser and a professor of law, and Thane Naberhaus, a tenured professor of philosophy, and demoted David Rehm from a Provost position, after these faculty members expressed concerns about Newman’s plan proposals to cull 20 to 25 students from the freshman class deemed likely to fail early in the school year, The Washington Post reported.

The president’s actions have sparked outrage from several alumni and professors nationwide who have criticized his decision, saying that it is a threat to the academic freedom of the school. On Tuesday, a petition titled "Academics' Statement of Protest Regarding Faculty Firings at Mount St. Mary's University,” demanding the immediate reinstatement of the fired faculty members, began circulating and had garnered more than 2,400 signatures in a few hours.

“The manner and circumstance of their dismissal raise serious questions about the respect given to moral conscience and intellectual freedom at Mount St. Mary's,” the petition reads.

The American Association of University Professors, a national advocacy group, wrote an open letter to Newman on Tuesday characterizing his actions as "fundamentally at odds with basic standards of academic due process."

“The AAUP views summary dismissals as inimical to principles of academic freedom. Central to the activities of the Association is the promotion of procedural standards that safeguard academic freedom, standards that are very widely accepted throughout the higher education community.”

The furor began last month after the Mountain Echo, the student-run newspaper, ran an email exchange between Newman and Provost David Rehm in January. In the exchange, Newman outlined his goal to weed out freshmen who were struggling academically early in the school year, by conducting a survey to determine which students to dismiss. The newspaper quoted Newman as saying that those students should not be compared to "cuddly bunnies."  "You just have to drown the bunnies ... put a Glock to their heads," Newman wrote.

“My short term goal is to have 20-25 people leave by the 25th [of September]" Newman wrote. "This one thing will boost our retention 4-5 percent. A larger committee or group needs to work on the details but I think you get the objective.”

The president has long defended his plan, saying that it will save families and colleges thousands of dollars owed in debt.

“Consider that the average cost of tuition plus room and board at a 4-year private institution is $43,921, or $175,684 over the course of four years," he wrote in a Washington Post piece defending his plan. “It’s a staggering cost, but especially so for the families of students who won’t make it across the finish line. And more than 20 percent of first-year students who drop out still owe student loans on their failed education, further plunging them into economic hardship.”

“Many students aren’t always willing to raise their hand and say, ‘I need help.’ So it is our obligation to identify warning signs that can appear as early as a student’s first semester that the academics and college life is not the right fit.”

Yet there are those who criticize the plan, saying that it is unethical for a college to admit students and not do everything possible to encourage success. As Inside Higher ED reported, faculty members at the school say that “it would be completely legitimate for the university to raise its admissions standards, but that the obligation to all new students is to assume they will succeed with the right support.”

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