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Mount St. Mary’s President Brings it to Tumultuous Crossroads

EMMITSBURG, Md. ― Everyone at Mount St. Mary’s University eats at Patriot Hall ― students, faculty and even President Simon Newman.

But the other day, hours after Newman rejected the faculty’s demand to resign, the airy, glass-walled cafeteria split into two groups ― those who supported the college president and those angered by his number-crunching strategies and blunt language, including referring to struggling freshmen as “bunnies” that should be “drowned” if they can’t swim in a demanding academic environment.

Newman’s job at “the Mount” is now in jeopardy, and the uproar over his comments and approach has spread far beyond the mountaintop liberal arts college 60 miles northwest of Baltimore, where midday Mass is still celebrated partly in Latin.

In the cafeteria Monday, scores of Newman supporters sat at light-gray tables near the entrance, discussing changes he’s made or proposed during his 11 months on the job. Those students said Newman has made the 208-year-old Catholic university ― the nation’s second-oldest ― more competitive.

Across the room was a smaller group that included sophomore Louis Lawrence of Baltimore. He said Newman has mishandled his mission and eroded the faith-based foundation that attracted Lawrence to the private school in the first place.

“I don’t think that he’s recognizing that what makes the Mount what it is, is that we’re a small, very close-knit community that is deeply rooted in our Catholic faith and the Catholic tradition and identity,” Lawrence said. “We came here for those reasons, and I don’t think that’s something that should be changed.”

The problem underlying the turmoil at the Mount is the same one confronting many small, liberal-arts colleges: How to survive with a humanities-heavy curriculum that’s short on the business, engineering and technology programs in greatest demand.

The board of trustees brought in Newman, a British-born, Cambridge-educated, financial industry executive, to make changes. He has apologized for the bunny comment, which was made to a faculty member in a private conversation and first reported by the student newspaper last month. Anti-Newman sentiment exploded last week after he fired two faculty members, including the student newspaper adviser and a tenured philosophy professor who had openly criticized him.

Last Friday, a large majority of the roughly 110 faculty members demanded Newman’s resignation. On Sunday, the student government released a poll showing strong student support for his “leadership and vision.” The board is taking two weeks to review the situation.

On Wednesday, as the reinstated faculty members returned to work, Chairman John E. Coyne III praised Newman for cutting costs, boosting student morale and devising a strategic plan ― Mount 2.0 ― to nearly double undergraduate enrollment to 3,000 in 10 years. The keys include adding engineering and cybersecurity programs and reducing the number of humanities credits students must earn in the “core curriculum” ― all while maintaining what Newman calls “a robust Catholic identity.”

While nearly 75 percent of the student body is Catholic, it’s not a requirement to attend The Mount and the school says all faiths are welcome.

“I want to build on the strong traditions of the Mount and stimulate progress,” Newman said in an interview Monday.

Coyne, a 1977 graduate and vice chairman of the Brinker Capital investment-management firm in Berwyn, Pennsylvania, said liberal-arts elements won’t be diminished. But he said it must be “repackaged” around other programs to make the school ― previously known mainly for its four NCAA men’s basketball tournament appearances ― more competitive.

“Students coming to university in 2014, 2015, 2016 want a different experience than a lot of the alumni had 20, 30, 40 years ago. This school has evolved dramatically in that time. Simon sees the need for that to evolve once again,” Coyne said.

He said the board has asked Newman to avoid using language that in the business world might be OK but “in many instances that has no place in an academic community where people are little bit more sensitive to those kinds of metaphors.”

Senior class president Vrunda Patel, majoring in business and economics, praised Newman effusively. She said he’s brought big-name prospective employers to the Mount; she had a summer internship at Morgan Stanley.

“We want our peers to be in the competitive job markets,” Patel said. “It’s one thing to have a job but it’s one thing to have a job, you know, in Google. It’s a different level of prestige and you’re surrounded by a different level of competition.”

Most educators don’t perceive liberal arts as being at odds with so-called STEM programs in science, tech, engineering and math, said Mitchell Chang, a professor of education at the University of California, Los Angeles. He said conflicts arise when certain liberal arts programs or tenured faculty are abolished.

Chang, who once worked at Loyola Marymount University, a Catholic school, said he can’t imagine a university with a strong Catholic identity pursuing science and math at the expense of its bedrock liberal-arts program.

“Fewer of those institutions, however, are now led by clergy so there is concern even by the Vatican about what that means to the sectarian identity of those colleges and universities. Perhaps that identity is further compromised by someone with a corporate leadership style that comes from outside of higher education,” Chang wrote.

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