Peter Jesserer Smith is a staff reporter for the National Catholic Register. He covered Pope Francis’s historic visit to the United States in 2015, and to Jerusalem and the Holy Land in 2014. He has reported on the Syrian and Iraqi refugee crisis, including from Jordan and Lebanon on an Egan Fellowship from Catholic Relief Services. Before coming on board the Register in 2013, he was a freelance writer, reporting for Catholic media outlets as the Register and Our Sunday Visitor. He is a graduate of the National Journalism Center and earned a B.A. in Philosophy at Christendom College, where he co-founded the student newspaper, The Rambler, and served as its editor. He comes originally from the Finger Lakes region of New York State.
The three-week drama over academic freedom and Catholic governance that gripped Mount St. Mary’s University in Maryland, the second oldest Catholic university and seminary, has finally concluded: its president, Simon Newman, has resigned.
On Tuesday, the Mount announced that Newman had resigned effective immediately. The board had met to decide the fate of Newman, who had stubbornly hung on despite a Feb. 11 faculty vote of no-confidence in his leadership that followed a catastrophic week in which Newman fired professors, including one with tenure and then waited far too long to defend his actions or the Mount’s administration in the ensuing national media. (Read the Register’s original coverage Embattled Mount St. Mary’s President Seeks to Quell Outrage Over Firings, Anti-Catholic Remark for background).
“The board is grateful to President Newman for his many accomplishments over the past year, including strengthening the University’s finances, developing a comprehensive strategic plan for our future, and bringing many new ideas to campus that have benefitted the entire Mount community,” said John Coyne, Chairman of the Mount St. Mary’s University Board of Trustees. “We thank him for his service.”
The writing may have been on the wall for Newman at least two weeks ago, when the Board of Trustees voted unanimously to show support for its chairman John E. Coyne III, but added that it was taking two weeks to investigate Newman’s leadership. In the meantime, the fired professors had been reinstated and are back at work.
Newman, in his statement, was gracious and explained he was stepping down for the good of the Mount and its students.
“I am proud of what I have been able to achieve in a relatively short time particularly in helping the University chart a clear course toward a bright future,” said Simon Newman. “I care deeply about the school and the recent publicity relating to my leadership has become too great of a distraction to our mission of educating students. It was a difficult decision but I believe it is the right course of action for the Mount at this time.”
Newman, who had experience in private equity firms, had been brought in to put the Mount in the Spring 2015 semester to put the institution on a better financial footing and outlook. Within a year, Newman had pushed through a series of actions that raised concern about the institution’s governance by Catholic principles — including breaking faith with retirees, particularly low-income workers who had built their lives around benefits that he unilaterally decided had to go. A number of other professors and employees at the Mount had expressed concern about Newman’s respect for Catholic identity and the dignity of their students, but apparently had been fired as well.
All these concerns with Newman’s administration, however, probably would have never been exposed to national news media had not Newman decided to fire tenured professor Thane Naberhaus and Professor Ed Egan, the faculty advisor to the student newspaper, the Mountain Echo. Within a day, more than a thousand academics, both national and international, had signed a petition protesting the move. By the end of the week, that number had reached more than 8,000, and the Mount became an epicenter of an academic scandal and media firestorm.
Ironically, the original story that had appeared to provoke Newman’s decision to fire the professors had died down. The Echo had reported that Newman (defending his plan to improve freshmen retention rates) compared struggling freshmen to bunnies that needed to be culled by drowning or by Glock. It had been picked up by the Washington Post, which is both a regional and national newspaper. Newman’s apology for the poor choice of metaphor seemed to put that embarrassing story to rest.
But when Newman fired Naberhaus and Egan, he seemed to not understand that firing a tenured professor was the academic equivalent to launching a nuclear strike. His leadership in the ensuing communications crisis appeared absent when reporters were working on their stories, and when it mattered most. As both indicated by my story for the Register, and in plenty of other examples recorded on the Internet, Newman did not return the media’s requests to present his side of the story, defend his actions, or have a designated Mount representative do so on his behalf.
For Mount St. Mary’s the challenge of the future is twofold: healing the painful divisions created by these past three weeks, and addressing the underlying financial issues that Newman was made president to fix in the first place. Newman’s successor will have to do all this, while finding a way to advance the Mount’s Catholic identity, and restore the damage to its reputation.
In the meantime, Karl Einolf, Dean of the Richard J.Bolte, Sr., School of Business, has been named by the Mount St. Mary’s University Board of Trustees to take the reins as the Mount searches for a permanent successor.
Note: In lieu of comments, please offer up a prayer for the Mount and for the healing and reconciliation of everyone involved.