Whether or not the hiring of a business executive to run a university was the right thing to do, one thing is certain at Mount St Mary’s University in Emmittsburg, Maryland: Simon P Newman brought his background as a financier to bear on his leadership at the college, and his way of keeping the small Roman Catholic college relevant in a crowded marketplace failed.
Mr Newman resigned as president of the university on February 29, but he had come under fire long before that. Earlier this year, he used an analogy to refer to students at the university, who have a habit of dropping out at higher rates than he would like to see. He suggested that faculty members were treating freshmen like “cuddly bunnies” and should instead “drown the bunnies” and encourage them to withdraw from the university within the first month, before sinking any more money into an education that wasn’t going to pan out.
The debt burden on students who enroll in college but never complete their degree can’t be ignored, but Mr Newman’s analogy was at odds with the way most professors think a college should treat students, offering them extra assistance and encouraging them to succeed. Instead, Mr Newman brought his sense of business and cutting losses to his running of the university.
It didn’t go well. When his analogy was made public, he forced a philosophy professor to resign as provost. David B Rehm maintained his position as a professor of philosophy, but since he didn’t entirely agree with Mr Newman’s plan to drown the bunnies, he was forced out of his university leadership role. Then the director of the university’s prelaw program and an associate professor of philosophy were fired. Faculty members expressed no confidence in Mr Newman, voting 87 to 3 at one point for him to resign.
In business, employees who speak out against their bosses tend to be shown the door, but at a university, free speech and free thought have always ruled. The two styles clash.
But while the situation at The Mount may stand out, it’s not the only place where a business executive has been hired to run an institution of higher learning. In recent years, leaders with similar credentials have been brought in at Bowdoin and Muhlenberg colleges.
And in September, J Bruce Harreld, a former vice president at IBM, was named president of the University of Iowa. Professors at the Big 10 university were said to be outraged over the thinness of Mr Harreld’s academic résumé.
Maybe such changes are coming with inevitability. Maybe changes like these are required to save our universities in today’s business-friendly climate. Or maybe our universities don’t need saving in the financial sense and should just be allowed to flounder according to whatever natural forces take their toll.
But if universities keep initiating business practices in the governance of institutions of higher learning, we will see less free speech, less free thought, and higher profits at these schools—profits that don’t depend on athletics and keep small, values-based colleges afloat. In that sense, we’re just shooting the messenger in forcing leaders like Mr Newman out. If change is inevitable, more like him will come in the future. And they won’t be as foolish with their use of metaphors.
The incident begs the question: Are we in store for similar failures in the K-12 world, where we inch toward the use of business practices, not all of which even make good business sense, to run our public schools, shutting down those that lose a few students, replacing human capital with computer programs, kicking kids out who don’t conform to some standard of behavior, and firing teachers whose students don’t achieve some mark on a standardized test?