EXPRESSION ON CATHOLIC CAMPUSES, pt. I
By: Dominic Sanfilippo – Staff Writer
Catholicism and higher education both emphasize the ability of words, symbols and metaphors to change the world. Mount St. Mary’s University (MSMU), a Catholic school tucked away in the hills of the Catoctin Mountains near Emmitsburg, Maryland, operates and lives by a mission statement similar to that held by many Catholic universities and colleges around the world, including the University of Dayton. Its words conjure a mental picture of an atmosphere bolstered by freedom, trust and relationship:
“In order to enable individuals to understand and to challenge or embrace the cultural forces operating on them, Mount St. Mary’s…encourages each student to undertake free and rigorous inquiry leading to a reflective and creative understanding of the traditions which shape the communities in which we live.”
Picture that same university’s president telling a room full of his faculty members about a proposed retention plan that, according to MSMU’s student newspaper, The Mountain Echo, and multiple nationwide news sources, would use a student survey administered at first-year student orientation to single out struggling students and after a few weeks attempt to convince them to leave. This would boost MSMU’s retention rate, as the class size reported to the Department of Education is not counted until later in the academic year.
The survey would include deeply personal questions, such as whether the student felt depressed or believed their family could afford four years of college education.
This plan was part of the promised dramatic change that Simon Newman, hired last year from the world of high-stakes finance, was hoping to implement to make the university more marketable and increase enrollment, according to The Washington Post.
Some faculty and administrators were uncomfortable with the implications of that plan, and in response, Newman told them that “[the retention plan] was hard for you because you think of students as cuddly bunnies, but you can’t. You just have to drown the bunnies…put a Glock to their heads.”
Newman’s statement—and his subsequent firing of two professors and a provost—have set the Mount St. Mary’s community aflame over the past few weeks, igniting fierce reactions, protest and debate across the world of higher education.
After The Mountain Echo reported on the discussions around the retention plan and Newman’s words in a special Jan. 19 edition, all hell broke loose.
The president asked for and received the resignation of the university’s provost, David Rehm, who had expressed concern to Newman about the ethical implications of the plan, according to Inside Higher Ed. Rehm, however, retained his position as a faculty member.
Newman later fired Thane Naberhaus, Ph.D., a tenured philosophy professor who opposed the proposed policy, via a personal letter that accused of him of breaching his “duty of loyalty” to the university. In the same letter, Newman deemed Naberhaus persona non grata and barred him from university premises. The same day, Newman dismissed Ed Egan, the director of MSMU’s pre-law program and the faculty advisor for the student newspaper.
Word about the unfolding situation at MSMU spread quickly, and within a few days, over 8,000 faculty and scholars from around the world signed a digital petition calling for the university to reinstate Naberhaus and Egan immediately.
The petition notes that Pope John Paul II’s apostolic constitution on Catholic education, Ex Corde Ecclesiae, calls for “the freedom of conscience of each person [to] be fully respected” and expresses a “concern that the professors were fired “without any academic due process as required under [American Association of University Professors] guidelines and the customary standards of tenure.”
At the time of publication, 30 UD professors, lecturers and graduate students had signed the petition.
“I signed out of solidarity,” said Andrew Slade, Ph.D., an associate professor and the chair of UD’s English department. “In particular, to what appears to have been a summary firing of a tenured faculty member and a long serving non-tenured faculty member. I see the action as an unwarranted breach of trust between faculty and the president.”
“Fear and mistrust are antithetical to the practice of free inquiry that are the hallmarks … of a Catholic university.”
Una Cadegan, Ph.D., an associate professor of history at UD who recently published a book entitled “All Good Books Are Catholic Books: Print Culture, Censorship, and Modernity in Twentieth Century America,” expressed similar feelings. “I wanted to indicate support for the friends I have at St. Mary’s and to aid in bringing attention to this situation,” she stated.
After receiving intense public pressure, President Newman seemingly changed direction and sent Naberhaus a letter on Feb. 10, informing him he was now suspended—not fired—and offering him the chance to go through a “conciliation” process with Newman and university officials. Naberhaus stated he would not return until Newman resigns, according to The Washington Post.
In another contradiction, Newman recently announced at a faculty meeting that he was reinstating both Naberhaus and Egan as a “first step of reconciliation and healing in the Season of Lent and the Year of Mercy.” As of publication, the outcome of negotiations between the university and its fired—and reinstated—faculty members has yet to be confirmed.
On Feb. 12, MSMU faculty voted 87-3 to call on Newman to step down immediately. The president has refused to step down, and the university’s board of trustees continues to support him, according to The Washington Post.
The broader MSMU community has been plunged into a state of uncertainty, hostility and questioning, according to multiple news reports. Some students support Newman, even holding signs with his name at university sporting events; many others have written editorials and joint letters in multiple outlets to express concern that Newman is taking the university away from its Catholic roots of compassion.
As this situation unfolds, community members of Catholic universities and colleges around the world—including the University of Dayton—will undoubtedly reflect on what it means to be in community with one another, whether debating policies in an academic senate meeting or engaging difficult questions in the classroom.
“The pressures on Catholic higher education are real, and we have to respond creatively to them,” Cadegan reflected. “Our response, though, should draw on the resources of our own traditions – the long history of Catholicism and of the universities that grew out of it – and not solely on business strategies. Working together, these approaches could do something genuinely creative, successful, even transformational. If they are kept in isolation, or pitted against each other, no one will win.”
The ongoing MSMU saga is a testament to the truth that words, however intentioned, are immensely powerful. Although small, they create something out of nothing; in the same moment, they can destroy.
Graphic by Art Director Kelsey Mills.