Home > Uncategorized > Hope for Academia: Thin-Skinned Bunny-Killing College President Resigns

Hope for Academia: Thin-Skinned Bunny-Killing College President Resigns

A few weeks ago I wrote two posts describing the uproar at Mount Saint Mary’s College when students and faculty members learned of a plan their recently appointed college president, Simon Newman– a “former financial industry executive”, devised to quickly weed out students who were likely to fail. The rationale for the plan was to improve the college’s retention rate, which uses fall enrollments as the baseline for measurement, and thereby improve the college’s standing in the US News and World Report. I imagine for a business-minded individual who focuses on numbers the idea was straightforward and required no soul searching or debate whatsoever. Simply give entering freshman a survey designed to determine students with  poor study habits, ask professors to identify freshman who appeared to be struggling in classes from the outset, and counsel those who were struggling to leave school quickly. If Big Data in the form of the US News and World Report rankings was going to be the basis for judging the “quality” of the college, the college President’s mission was clear: find the small data points that could be changed to leverage the greatest gain in the shortest amount of time. But now the President is gone.

When two faculty member and a dean pushed back against the idea of pushing students out before they had a chance to adjust to the rigors of college, President Newman likened struggling freshman at the school to “cuddly bunnies” who needed to be “drowned” or have a “Glock held to their heads” by soft-hearted professors. When the faculty members and dean shared this metaphor with students and colleagues, the student newspaper ran a lengthy account of the gambit and the faculty expressed their strong opposition. The professors who shared the reports of the President’s plan and his metaphor, one of whom was the student newspaper advisor, were summarily dismissed for  ‘‘violating the code of conduct and acceptable use policies’’. The dean was demoted for the same reason. Now the President has resigned.

The newspaper accounts I’ve read focus on Mr. Newman’s clumsy metaphors— “drowning bunnies” and “hold a Glock to their heads” but overlook the bigger picture: the Board’s decision to hire a business executive to run the school like a business and that businessman’s decision to use analytics as the best way to succeed at that goal. And that is the big story here because it is being repeated in public schools across the country where “hard” test scores take precedent over “soft” skills that defy easy and cheap measurement and school boars seeking ever higher test scores, ever lower costs, and a shrinking pool of qualified applicants for leadership positions turn to businessmen to run their school districts and schools.

There is some good news in this for academia and public education. MAYBE the President’s metaphor and his approach to pushing out struggling students– an approach used by those who operate “successful” for-profit charter schools– will be seen as inappropriate and contrary to the goals of education and the relentless focus on success-as-measured-by-data-points will be drowned in a sea of compassion.

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