Editor’s note: This article was updated on Friday afternoon to reflect new developments.
EMMITSBURG, Md. — What might have been a brief flap, over calling freshmen “bunnies” at Mount St. Mary’s University, turned into a national firestorm over the famed Maryland Catholic institution’s commitment to academic freedom, and governance by Catholic principles under its current leadership.
Now, the administration of the second-oldest Catholic university and seminary in the country is seeking to put out the flames after thousands of academics raised their voices in shock and outrage that the Mount fired two professors and demoted its provost just days before Ash Wednesday.
On Friday, President Simon Newman told the Mount’s faculty, which was considering a vote of no-confidence in his leadership, that he was immediately reinstating tenured professor Thane Naberhaus and professor Edward Egan. According to the Mount’s news release, the move was done in accord with the healing spirit of Lent and the Year of Mercy.
“We will work to implement the initiatives we agree are important for our student’s future and our university’s future. And most importantly eliminate the feelings of fear and injustice that any may be harboring, work through our misunderstandings, and make a new beginning as a unified team,” Newman stated. “You have my solemn commitment to work together to restore our relationship and our school.”
The faculty, however, voted 87—3 to call on President Newman with “a loving spirit of compassion and forgiveness” to submit his resignation by Monday morning at 9 a.m. Their letter stated they have “come to the sad conclusion that this state of affairs cannot be resolved while you continue in your current office.”
By the time these events transpired on Friday afternoon, more than 8,000 academics from across the nation and overseas had signed a letter of protest in solidarity with the fired faculty members — one of whom had tenure, the other of whom was a former trustee and faculty adviser to the student newspaper — demanding their immediate reinstatement.
“Something terrible is happening at one of our great Catholic universities,” Chad Pecknold, a professor at The Catholic University of America, told the Register. He added, “A corporate executive with expertise in hostile corporate takeovers, and none in Catholic university governance, was appointed president of Mount St. Mary's University, and he is deforming the place.”
Pecknold is a signer of the petition which cites both Ex Corde Ecclesiae, Pope St. John Paul II’s apostolic constitution for Catholic higher education, and the Catechism of the Catholic Church in arguing that Mount St. Mary’s president Simon Newman’s actions have raised serious questions about the university’s respect for “moral conscience and intellectual freedom.”
But Pecknold alleged that the Mount’s governance had taken a serious departure from principles of Catholic governance under Newman’s tenure — Newman had previous worked in private equity firms JP Capital Partners and Bain and Company — and that the trustees made a “tragic mistake” in entrusting the leadership of the university to him.
“They hired a man who does not respect the dignity of our students, or the faculty who teach them. They hired a man who has no regard for the Catholic mission of The Mount,” he added. “They hired a man with no real experience in running a university other than he once went to a very good one a long time ago.”
The firings, demotions, and censure of faculty had followed from a Jan. 19 story published by the student newspaper, The Mountain Echo, which quoted the president using an animal cruelty metaphor — later confirmed by The Washington Post — to defend his plan to improve student retention: “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.”
According to the Echo, the comments were made in September to faculty members who were expressing concerns about the student retention plan.
Newman later apologized for the remarks, and published a Jan. 20 op-ed in The Washington Post defending his plan to improve the Mount’s student retention rate as merciful to failing freshmen, by providing them a way out without “further plunging them into economic hardship.”
Although the story had begun to recede from the public eye, the Mount’s board chairman John E. Coyne III stated in a letter to the Mount community that the board had conducted a “forensic investigation” and found “incontrovertible evidence of the existence of an organized, small group of faculty and recent alums working to undermine and ultimately cause the exit of President Newman.”
Coyne said the individuals involved would be held “accountable for these actions.”
Two weeks later, heads began to roll. First, David Rehm lost his job as the university provost. Then the ax fell suddenly and swiftly on Thane Naberhaus, a tenured professor critical of Newman’s direction, who was accused of “disloyalty” to the university. Naberhaus at the time said that he had no idea why he was fired, and was contemplating a lawsuit.
Untenured professor Edward Egan, a former trustee, also was fired in part for his role as the Echo’s adviser.
Sources to the Register said professor Greg Murry, director of the Mount’s Veritas Symposium, the foundational course of the Mount’s four-year integrated liberal arts program, had been locked out of his Mount email accounts.
Rehm and Murry were both quoted in the Echo’s story — which quoted from email exchanges between Newman and other faculty — as having serious concerns with Newman’s aggressive push to identify 20-25 struggling freshmen within the first four weeks of school, who would then be invited to leave.
Newman later defended his policy in his Jan. 20 op-ed as an implementation of the “Temple Option” at Temple University. But according to Temple’s FAQ, the essays to evaluate student potential are given to applicants before they enter the university, not to freshmen who have barely arrived on campus, and yet to complete the first quarter.
One of the professors involved in the emails quoted by the Echo, Dean Josh Hochschild, had described Newman’s proposal as “unethical” and said that he could not administer it in good conscience to students who did not know what was at stake.
By the time of the Echo’s story, however, Hochschild had already been fired after clashing with Newman’s sweeping negative descriptions of Catholic students, including those from homeschooling backgrounds.
According to Catholic News Agency, a number of former faculty, alumni and a current administrative employee have been scandalized by Newman’s disparaging (and at times vulgar) remarks about Catholic tradition, including references to there being “too many bleeding crucifixes” on campus to calling some students “Catholic jihadis.”
Naberhaus told CNA that Newman stated publicly a clear desire to move the university's focus away from its Catholic identity, saying “if you go in the marketplace, Catholic doesn’t sell, liberal arts doesn’t sell.”
Egan also acknowledged to the Register that these views were public knowledge.
“Similar things have been said by the president at faculty meetings too,” he said.
While president Newman’s administration and the board have repeated the mantra “change is hard,” those changes have raised concerns about its Catholic identity as well: from bringing in HBO Go — which broadcasts semi-pornographic entertainment such as Game of Thrones, Rome and Hung to name a few — into student dorm rooms to proposing cuts in the core curriculum’s philosophy and theology courses.
The Cardinal Newman Society, which in years past has favorably ranked Mount St. Mary’s under previous administrations, told the Register that they were “actively working to get complete information” on the situation.
“We have serious concerns about what has been reported and pray that the Mount's new leadership embraces the University's Catholic identity as its greatest priority,” CNS president Patrick Reilly said via email.
Adrift From Catholic Governance?
The firings put a spotlight on a much deeper issue: all the professors punished so far had expressed serious concerns that the Mount’s governance since Newman’s arrival in the spring of 2015 was breaking with Catholic social teaching on human dignity and justice in society. According to Egan, a handful of other professors had also lost their jobs the previous year as the price of disagreeing with president Newman.
Egan told the Register that “Mount St. Mary’s is a great and wonderful institution of Catholic higher education.” But the students at the Echo wanted to report on a series of actions they saw that “don’t comport with the Mount’s mission” and Catholic social justice.
The Echo published an open letter from a trio of retired professors who objected to Newman’s sudden decision to bypass the university’s shared governance procedures and cut the benefits of retirees, particularly hourly-wage earners who had taken low wages in exchange for those benefits and “trusted the Mount to honor its promises.”
Egan said the professors were not oblivious to the university’s financial pressures, but they expressed concern that there might be other ways to soften the blow, “or engage in dialogue so the least among us can be protected.”
“That was a key point,” he said.
Another story that the administration and the board did not want published in the Echo was the trademark infringement lawsuit filed against Mount St. Mary’s University in Los Angeles (until last year, the Los Angeles school was known instead as Mount St. Mary’s College).
Egan said that he saw his role with the Echo as that of a faculty adviser — not as a censor or content director who would tell them what to publish or not to publish. Otherwise, the student newspaper would not be independent, but a marketing arm of the university. He said then-provost Rehm seemed satisfied with that call, and nothing else came of it.
He did insist on two things with the students as their adviser from the start.
“I told them, ‘As your adviser, I serve Mount St. Mary’s and the Truth, and I don’t think the two of those are mutually exclusive,” he said.
Egan said his firing was completely unexpected. At no time in the past, he added, did the administration approach him and tell him they were going to replace him as advisor because they had a different vision for the paper.
“Look, if somebody opposes an initiative by the president does that make him part of a cabal?” he said. “Our mission [statement] talks about Mount St. Mary’s being dedicated to the Truth — it’s pretty difficult to pursue the Truth if people aren’t allowed to talk freely.”
Danger Zone: Lawsuit, Loss of Accreditation
President Newman’s decision to summarily punish faculty members, and the ensuing scandal to the academic world, also potentially exposed the Mount to several grave dangers.
James Feinerman, one of the associate deans at Georgetown University Law Center and a signer of the academic letter of protest, told the Register that Newman’s actions scandalized professors like him who take both academic freedom and their institution’s Catholic identity seriously.
Feinerman, this year’s chair of Georgetown University’s committee for rank and tenure, told the Register that the general practice — not simply Georgetown’s — is to remove a tenured professor only for “moral turpitude, plagiarism, or something like that.”
Dismissing a tenured professor on grounds of “dubious loyalty” to the president did not rise to that level.
“This is diametrically opposed to freedom of expression, freedom of conscience, and First Amendment rights that Americans enjoy generally,” he said.
Even though Mount St. Mary’s is a private institution, Feinerman said that it is not immune from a lawsuit for breach of contract, and “exposes itself to serious financial liability.”
Firing a tenured professor can also discourage top-flight faculty from seeking employment at a university, and it can provoke other university faculty to up and leave an institution that does not respect academic freedom.
Other possibilities involve censure from the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) for violating academic due process and shared governance. The worst-case scenario — a remote possibility in Feinerman’s opinion, but not completely ruled out not — would be for the Middle States Commission on Higher Education to investigate and revoke the university’s accreditation for violating its shared governance requirements.
“I’ve been teaching now almost thirty years at Georgetown, and I couldn’t imagine something like that happening here [at Georgetown],” he said, noting that it was the oldest Catholic university in the U.S. “I couldn’t imagine this happening at Notre Dame or at any other A-List Catholic college, so it would behoove Mount St. Mary’s to follow the leaders of Catholic tertiary education, and engage [professors] in the way they do, rather than what this guy does.”
Throughout the week until late Friday afternoon, neither the president nor any representatives of the board took the step of responding to the Register’s request to tell their side of the story. The Mount’s administration had also declined similar invitations from secular and other Catholic media, preferring instead to speak directly to its alumni, students, and parents.
In an email circulated to parents obtained by The Washington Post, president Newman said his administration was taking “the high road” by declining to name the specific policies or ethical breaches of the summarily dismissed faculty.
“You may see other versions of events, but we have chosen to restore our focus on educating your students rather than explaining the damaging actions of a few individuals,” he said.
However, by late Friday, the university sent out a release saying that Naberhaus and Egan were fully reinstated as employees of the Mount, “as a first step of reconciliation and healing in the Season of Lent and the Year of Mercy.”
As for President Newman’s fate, the release quoted board member Father Kevin Farmer as telling faculty: “The board continues to support President Newman. We embrace his vision for the future of the university and believe he is the best person to carry it out. We have every desire to resolve the tension on campus and move forward together.”
But the faculty, with near unanimity, approved a letter calling on Newman to resign by Monday morning “for the good of our community.”
Prior to Friday afternoon’s events, Egan told the Register that he always has loved the “heart and soul” of the Mount.
“I was proud to be part of the board that responded favorable to Ex Corde Ecclesiae,” he said.
“One thing I won’t change is my loyalty and love for Mount St. Mary’s. It is a great place, and I think it will be great again. But loving Mount St. Mary’s isn’t an option — it’s a requirement.”
Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff reporter.