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Opposition to Mount St. Mary’s President Results in Faculty Firings, Dire Threats to Free Student Press

February 9, 2016

BALTIMORE, February 9, 2016—Mount St. Mary’s University in Maryland has gone “nuclear.”

Yesterday, the liberal arts university took the extraordinary step of firing a tenured faculty member and the faculty advisor to the student newspaper following their criticism of first-year university president Simon P. Newman’s plan to oust low-performing freshmen. The plan became national news last month after the student newspaper reported that Newman told a critical faculty member, “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.”

In addition to tenured professor Thane M. Naberhaus and faculty advisor Ed Egan, Newman also demanded and received the resignation of university provost David B. Rehm, who was previously critical of Newman’s retention plan. Another faculty member, Gregory W. Murry, suspects he is next in line to be out of a job. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) demands that the fired faculty members be reinstated and that dissent and a free student press be respected on campus.

“Mount St. Mary’s went nuclear,” said Peter Bonilla, director of FIRE’s Individual Rights Defense Program. “It’s shocking that the university fired faculty members, including a tenured professor, for dissenting from the administration and raising awareness of an issue of great concern to the community. Speaking freely is a dangerous proposition at the Mount if it is willing to go this far to silence its critics.”

The firings come after a Mount St. Mary’s student newspaper, The Mountain Echo, published a story on January 19 highlighting Newman’s idea to use a survey to identify and dismiss 20–25 potentially low-performing freshman students in order improve the university’s student retention rate. Several faculty and administrators had expressed misgivings about the program.

“I am deeply saddened and appalled at what has happened here over the past few days,” said Rebecca Schisler, news editor for the Echo. “The men that were fired were some of the best mentors and professors I have ever known. The university will miss each and every one of them because they brought enormous passion and energy to the Mount.”

The university notified Egan and Naberhaus of their firings by letter. Egan, a former university trustee, was the Echo’s advisor and the director of the university’s pre-law program. Naberhaus was a tenured philosophy professor and had raised concerns about Newman’s retention program on a handful of occasions. A campus spokesman confirmed to The Chronicle of Higher Education that both faculty members were no longer with the university.

Naberhaus told the Chronicle that he received his letter, signed by the president, from a security officer, who confiscated his computer and escorted him to his car. The letter stated that Naberhaus had been designated “persona non grata” at the university and was no longer welcome on campus or at any university activity, and that failure to comply with the letter would result in “legal proceedings.” Egan told The Frederick News-Post that he hadn’t seen Naberhaus’ letter, but he believed his was similar.

A third professor strongly suspects he will be fired as well. Assistant professor of history Gregory W. Murry, who had informed the Echo about Newman’s “Glock” comments, told the Chronicle that he was called into a meeting with administrators but received the request after leaving campus. He did not attend the meeting and was subsequently locked out of his email account.

While Mount St. Mary’s is a private, Catholic institution, it makes promises of free speech and academic freedom to its community that it is morally and legally obligated to uphold. For example, the 2015 Code of Conduct states that “[a]cademic institutions exist for the transmission of knowledge, the pursuit of truth, the development of students, and the general well-being of society. Free inquiry and free expression are indispensable to the attainment of these goals.”

A petition is currently circulating within the Mount St. Mary’s community calling for Egan and Naberhaus “to be reinstated immediately, and the administration held accountable for this violation of their rights.”

“I’m astounded at the number of schools just in the past year that have investigated, punished, or even fired faculty members for their speech,” said FIRE President and CEO Greg Lukianoff. “Along with Mount St. Mary’s, Louisiana State University, Marquette University, Northwestern University, and Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota are just a few of the most egregious examples. I fear we are seeing the beginning of a new trend.”

FIRE is a nonpartisan, nonprofit educational foundation that unites civil rights and civil liberties leaders, scholars, journalists, and public intellectuals from across the political and ideological spectrum on behalf of individual rights, freedom of expression, academic freedom, due process, and rights of conscience at our nation’s colleges and universities. FIRE’s efforts to preserve liberty on campuses across America can be viewed at thefire.org.

CONTACT:

Nico Perrino, Associate Director of Communications, FIRE: 215-717-3473; media@thefire.org

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