Mount President’s Attempt to Improve Retention Rate Included Seeking Dismissal of 20-25 First-Year Students

Even before this year’s freshman class arrived on campus in August, President Simon Newman was developing a plan to dismiss 20-25 of them before the end of September as a means of improving the Mount’s student retention numbers.

Mount St. Mary’s University, like all colleges and universities in the U.S., is required by the federal government to submit the number of students enrolled each semester. The Mount’s cutoff date for the Fall 2015 semester was Sept. 25, and the number of students enrolled as of that date would be the number used to compute the Mount’s student retention.

The president’s plan to “cull the class” involved using a student survey that was developed in the president’s office and administered during freshman orientation.

On Jul. 27, Dr. Greg Murry, Director of the Veritas Symposium, sent an email to all Symposium instructors informing them that “on the request of the President’s office, students will be taking about an hour’s worth of the time to fill out a survey [on Sat. Aug. 22 during orientation] which we hope will help us to develop better advanced metrics for accepting students.”

The introduction to the freshman survey included the following: “This year, we are going to start the Veritas Symposium by providing you with a very valuable tool that will help you discover more about yourself. This survey has been developed by a leadership team here at The Mount, and it is based on some of the leading thinking in the area of personal motivation and key factors that determine motivation, success, and happiness. We will ask you some questions about yourself that we would like you to answer as honestly as possible. There are no wrong answers.”

An email exchange obtained by The Mountain Echo revealed Newman’s plan to dismiss 20-25 students by the Sept. 25 cutoff date along with the possibility of using the survey’s results to determine who would be dismissed. Both of these ideas were met with strong resistance by a small group of faculty and administration aware of the plan.

On the evening of Aug. 21, at 7:25 p.m., the night before the survey was given, Provost David Rehm emailed President Newman clarifying the “possible uses of the survey to be administered tomorrow.”

Rehm wrote that he was “deeply concerned… on several fronts” about how the survey might be used to “help students understand themselves.”

Rehm’s email continued: “But as we plan on some version of this for the coming year, I believe that there need to be more heads in the game to address the many challenges here.”

At 8:09 p.m. on Aug. 21, Newman responded to Rehm’s email: “I believe we should move ahead and ask the questions but we have time to discuss how the results will be fed back to students.”

“The broader community can decide how best to manage the dissemination of the information. We will have about 10 days to work this out which should be ample,” Newman wrote.

Newman’s email continued: “My short term goal is to have 20-25 people leave by the 25th [of Sep.]. 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.”

Rehm shared Newman’s email with a larger group comprised of Murry, Associate Provost Leona Sevick, then-Dean Josh Hochschild and Fr. Jim Donohue.

In an email sent at 11:03 p.m. on Aug. 21, Hochschild responded: “As I read this, in response to David’s concerns about how and whether survey results are communicated to students, Simon clarified a goal: to dismiss some students.”

“This new bit of information is deeply disturbing,” Hochschild wrote. “I already thought this survey was ill-conceived on many levels. If one of the intended uses is to identify students to dismiss, I think it is unethical. How can we in good conscience administer this?”

Hochschild’s email continued: “The survey’s introductory paragraphs almost persuaded me – this could be helpful to students, as part of a project of self-discovery…. But now, it seems that some responses to this survey could lead to drastic decisions. ‘There are no wrong answers’?!?!”

“If this is not an anonymous survey, nor even a confidential personality test, but a highly intrusive, and misleadingly framed administrative tool, can we proceed without disclosing to our students’ what’s at stake?”

The next morning at 6:31 a.m., Sevick responded to Hochschild’s email and CC’ed Rehm, Murry, and Donohue.

“As you know, I share your concerns about the survey,” Sevick wrote. “I don’t know if dismissing students was part of the original plan for the survey, but you’re right – it’s become part of the broad rhetoric surrounding improving retention and identifying at-risk students quickly.”

Sevick continued: “When the president first mentioned to me 2 weeks ago that he’d like to ‘dismiss’ (I don’t think he used this word) students who will not be retained into the second year anyway, I explained to him that we can only dismiss students according to our catalog, if they fail to attend classes or are creating a disturbance in the academic community.”

“We cannot dismiss students because we think they won’t succeed,” Sevick’s email said.“He knows this and Simon Blackwell [Chief Transformation Officer] knows this.”

At 9:20 a.m., Aug. 22, just hours before the survey was administered, Murry wrote to Sevick, Hochschild, Rehm and Donohue that “I think that we have to insist that the results of this survey not be used” for the purpose of selecting students to leave before Sept. 25.

Newman continued to pursue the dismissal of 20-25 first-year students in the face of strong opposition from a small group of faculty and administrators, who were aware of his plan.

“It was a very aggressively pursued idea. Even when people gave him [Newman] reasons not to, he still pursued it,” said a source familiar with the president’s plan.

According to three separate sources aware of the president’s culling plan, as the Sept. 25 reporting deadline approached, it was pushed back to Oct. 2 at the insistence of the president’s office to allow more time to collect the names of freshmen to be dismissed.

On Sept. 21, after giving a presentation in Knott Auditorium to a group of freshmen about the orientation survey results, Newman spoke to a small group of faculty and administrators, including Murry. According to Murry, Newman asked him to compile a list of freshmen whom Veritas Symposium professors had determined were not likely to complete their freshman year successfully.

Murry responded that “we don’t have enough information to determine that, and you might be kicking out some students who would make it.”

According to Murry, Newman replied, “there will be some collateral damage.”

While discussing the faculty’s likely reaction to such a move, Murry told Newman, “Even if I had the power of mind-control over the faculty, I couldn’t convince them this would be a good idea.”

According to Murry, during the course of the conversation, Newman said, “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.”

Economics professor Dr. John Larrivee was also present and confirmed Murry’s account of the conversation with Newman.

Sources close to the president’s culling plan also confirm that the Mount Cares Committee was asked to provide names of freshmen to be dismissed.

Ultimately, the president’s plan was thwarted as no names were provided by the extended Oct. 2 deadline. “We simply ran out the clock,” Murry said.

The Mountain Echo contacted Newman and the Board of Trustees for comment on this story on Dec. 1. Board Chairman John E. Coyne III responded with an email within 30 minutes calling the story “disturbing and inflammatory. It is also the product of a disgruntled employee and the creative and destructive imagination of a student being spoon fed his information.”

On Dec. 3 Coyne emailed a response to The Mountain Echo which is printed in its entirety in this online issue. Writing on behalf of the university’s Board of Trustees, Coyne said in the Dec. 3 response that he was “troubled” by the Echo’s report, calling it a “grossly inaccurate impression on the subject of the Mount’s efforts to improve student retention and to intervene early on to assure that incoming students have every opportunity to succeed at our university.”

Newman responded in an email to the Mount Community [faculty, administration and staff] on Dec. 22: “It has never been a goal to ‘kick out’ first year students because they were not doing well.”

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