Mount St. Mary’s reinstates professors it fired

Mount St. Mary’s University on Friday announced that it has reinstated two professors the president fired on Monday. The firings set off widespread outrage in academe, with numerous groups condemning the action and many people calling for the ouster of President Simon Newman.

A statement released by the university called Friday’s actions "a first step of reconciliation and healing in the season of Lent and the Year of Mercy."

“We will work to implement the initiatives we agree are important for our students’ future and our university’s future. And most importantly eliminate the feelings of fear and injustice that any may be harboring, work through our misunderstandings, and make a new beginning as a unified team. You have my solemn commitment to work together to restore our relationship and our school,” said a statement from Newman.

Newman’s statement came at a faculty meeting, where the university said a board member also appeared, to state the board’s confidence in Newman. That board member, Reverend Kevin Farmer, told the faculty, “The board continues to support President Newman. We embrace his vision for the future of the university and believe he is the best person to carry it out. We have every desire to resolve the tension on campus and move forward together.”

Whether the tensions will be resolved remains unclear. Inside Higher Ed reached Thane Naberhaus, one of the faculty members who was fired this week, despite having tenure, and asked him if he was planning to return. His email response: "Hell no."

He elaborated: "I’ll refuse to be reinstated until Newman is gone and some others are gone."

Ed Egan is the adviser to the student newspaper, and is the other faculty member who was fired and who the university said has now been reinstated. In an interview, he said Newman called him and told him he would be reinstated in part because the Roman Catholic Church has declared a Year of Mercy.

Egan said he was uncertain about returning and that he was bothered by the statement — and went to the faculty meeting to tell his colleagues why. Egan said he told them that the president’s statement was "as if I had done something wrong and was in need of his mercy." In fact, the reinstatement is an attempt to "placate" the campus so that it will not consider all the issues that go beyond the two professors.

"Reinstating me does not make these other problems go away, and Simon Newman needs to show mercy on Mount St. Mary’s and resign," Egan said. He added that he is consulting lawyers on his next moves.

‘Our Community Is Suffering’

Faculty members, after the news about the offer to reinstate the two professors, voted to seek the president’s removal. They adopted a letter to Newman that said, "Our community is suffering. In recent weeks, we have been divided due to miscommunications, missteps and misunderstandings. It is clear that we all could have done things differently to avoid the situation that we now find ourselves in. Regrettably, our problems have become public and have cast a dark shadow across our holy mountain."

The letter continued: "You have only been with us a short time. We know all too well the great love for this community that comes to those who join us. But it has become apparent that negative public attention has interfered with our ability to continue in our work and to bring new students and faculty to this campus. We have come to the sad conclusion that this state of affairs cannot be resolved while you continue in your current office. Therefore, it is with a heavy heart, in a loving spirit of compassion and forgiveness, that we appeal to your generosity of spirit and ask that you resign your position for the good of our community by 9:00 a.m. on Feb. 15, 2016."

Newman could not immediately be reached.

A Campus in Turmoil

The Mount St. Mary’s campus has been in turmoil since word leaked through The Mountain Echo, the student newspaper, last month that Newman compared struggling students to bunnies that need to be drowned or killed with a Glock. The metaphor grabbed attention, but educators said the underlying debate was what really mattered. Newman had proposed to use a survey — on which freshmen would be told there were no wrong answers — to identify those at risk of dropping out and to encourage them to do so in the first weeks of the semester. The idea was to raise the university’s retention rate, since those who leave very early in the semester don’t count in the total enrollment figures. Many professors and some administrators protested the plan, saying that the university has an obligation to try to educate those it admits.

For those just catching up on the controversy, here is an article about the initial report on the now infamous bunnies metaphor, an article on the firing of two faculty members and another on growing national outrage.

Of the two faculty members fired, one was Naberhaus, who was fired by the president with a letter that accused the professor of not showing sufficient loyalty. That accusation and the dismissal of a tenured professor without any faculty review stunned academics nationwide. The dismissal of Egan, who does not have tenure, also angered many outside academe, especially those who care about the student press. Firing a faculty adviser to a student paper just after that paper had exposed a controversy that embarrassed the president had journalism groups criticizing the university.

The controversy has continued to grow. Today, word spread of statements alleged to have been made by Newman in which he questioned why there are so many crucifixes on campus, and said that Catholicism "doesn’t sell well" and that the liberal arts college "doesn’t sell well."

Newman is in the first year of his presidency, and many on campus have questioned whether his lack of a background in academe has led to his problems. His biography notes his work with private equity and with consulting groups such as Bain & Co.

People on campus describe a surreal mood over the last week. Mount St. Mary’s is known as a close campus community, deeply committed to teaching and a traditional liberal arts experience in a Catholic setting. Professors — speaking without attribution and concerned that their email is being monitored — say all the values associated with the Mount have been called into question. Professors describe being fearful — and those who have contacted Inside Higher Ed have begged this reporter to never call them at the university and to communicate with them only when they are off campus. They have described scenes of people crying about their colleagues being fired, and uncertain about their careers.

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