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Mount St. Mary’s University President Simon Newman Resigns After Accreditor Questions Commitment to Freedom of Expression

Embattled Mount St. Mary’s University (MSMU) President Simon Newman has resigned, the school’s Board of Trustees announced late last night.

In a statement, MSMU said Newman tendered his resignation late Monday, effective immediately. The statement quoted Newman, who said, “[T]he recent publicity relating to my leadership has become too great of a distraction to our mission of educating students.”

Newman’s resignation is the latest turn in a months-long scandal that has roiled the small Maryland liberal arts school in Emmitsburg. It started with controversy over Newman’s freshman-retention program, escalated when he fired two professors (one had tenure) over their criticisms of that program, and resurfaced again amid concerns the school might lose its accreditation.

In January, Newman was embarrassed by an article in MSMU’s student newspaper, the Mountain Echo, which printed emails from Newman in which he admonished professors to stop thinking of students as “cuddly bunnies.” As for struggling students: “You just have to drown the bunnies … put a Glock to their heads.” Newman’s remarks, the Echo reported, were in response to criticism of Newman’s proposal to use the results of a survey of freshman students to predict which students were not likely to successfully complete their first year and remove them in order to improve MSMU’s reported retention rates.

Newman’s words, perhaps common in resignations following widespread criticism, are striking. While his initial remarks caused some controversy when they were first reported, the matter largely appeared to be over when MSMU’s Board of Trustees, after criticizing the students for publishing the article, acknowledged that Newman “did use an inappropriate metaphor … for which he has apologized” and affirmed its confidence in Newman. At that point, the matter might have been quietly left behind; Newman’s proposal to use survey results was never implemented and the disquieting tenor of his remarks wasn’t enough to carry much attention.

Newman, however, invited far greater attention to his remarks when he opted to take retribution, soliciting the resignation of a provost who had criticized Newman’s survey idea and abruptly terminating two professors—including a tenured professor who had criticized the plan and the advisor to the Echo—without a hearing.

Although Newman would later reinstate the terminated professors as an act of “mercy,” his summary dismissals of his critics created a maelstrom of media criticism. And rightly so. Newman’s transparent contempt for dissent and mild criticism—off-hand remarks about a plan that was never implemented—demonstrated an utter lack of appreciation for free speech and academic freedom. Newman’s conduct was so appalling that it earned MSMU a prominent spot in FIRE’s 2016 list of the top ten worst colleges for free speech.

With the eyes of the national media on MSMU, MSMU’s accreditor was also paying attention to the controversy. The Middle States Commission on Higher Education urges its institutions to make—and keep—a strong commitment to faculty freedom to criticize the institution and freedom of expression. Tying an institution’s commitment to academic, intellectual, and expressive freedoms to its integrity, the Commission expects institutions to “demonstrate[] adherence to ethical standards and [their] own stated policies, providing support for academic and intellectual freedom.” Although the Commission had affirmed MSMU’s accreditation in June and MSMU wasn’t scheduled for another review until the year 2020, the Commission in February sought a supplemental report from MSMU concerning, among other things, the university’s integrity.

Given the disparity between MSMU’s stated commitments to freedom of expression and Newman’s compulsive terminations of those who criticized him, the Commission’s concern was well-founded. While MSMU is a private institution not bound by the First Amendment, if it breaches promises to respect freedom of expression, accreditors should step in.

Had Newman simply weathered the initial criticism and left his critics in place, he almost certainly wouldn’t be resigning now. There would have been little continuing attention from the public and likely no attention from MSMU’s accreditor. It wasn’t Newman’s “kill the bunnies” remark that doomed his presidency—it was his cynical attempt to quell criticism through terminations, risking the credibility of his university in the process.

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