Violence-laced comments by Mount St. Mary’s University President Simon Newman have put a national spotlight on the school’s philosophy on student retention, particularly a program some faculty members have resisted.
The program entails finding students who might not succeed at the university and helping them withdraw, so they can get their tuition refunded. Officials at Hood College and a national higher education nonprofit organization said the Mount’s refund policy is unusual and possibly unprecedented.
Debate over the Mount’s retention program was inflamed by a blunt remark Newman made during a discussion, as first reported by the school’s student newspaper, The Mountain Echo.
Newman, in an interview with The Frederick News-Post, apologized for the quote.
Newman said he was frustrated that efforts to implement the student retention program had stalled.
“This is hard for you because you think of the students as cuddly bunnies, but you can’t. You have to drown the bunnies … put a Glock to their heads,” the Echo reported Newman saying.
During a recent interview with The News-Post, Newman admitted saying something to that effect, but couldn’t remember his exact words.
The Echo report, which sparked national media coverage, accused Newman of seeking to kick out 20 to 25 students, who would be identified through a survey. Newman said the impression that got out because of the Mountain Echo story mischaracterized the program.
Newman, who has been on the job since March 2015, said that, in early summer, the university began developing the program. It would identify students within the first six weeks of the semester who might need help in any facet of college life, whether social or academic.
At least $20,000 was spent on “expert input” to develop this program, a small percentage of the overall costs, university spokesman Christian Kendzierski said.
One component was a survey of the entire freshmen class this year. It looked at traits — such as grit — known to be successful measures in an attempt to identify students who need early intervention, Newman said.
Newman said freshmen were informed about the purpose of the survey. The Mount declined to release a copy “based on its intellectual properties.”
Newman said that, from there, the Mount Cares Committee — faculty members and others who help at-risk students — would attempt to assist students solve any problems that were indicated.
If, however, a student didn’t want to remain enrolled at the university, or was not a good match for Mount St. Mary’s University, Newman said, the student could get a full tuition refund. Newman described the process as “caring,” “ethical,” and in line with the longstanding warm, Catholic community at the Mount.
The Echo quoted an email chain it obtained from a member of the administration, one that purported the theory Newman wanted to dismiss freshmen, according to Managing Editor Ryan Golden.
In this email thread, Newman writes that his goal was “to have 20-25 people leave by [Sept. 25]. This one thing will boost our retention by 4-5 percent.”
The Mountain Echo reported that Newman wanted those students out by Sept. 25 to improve retention numbers submitted to the federal government by a Sept. 25 deadline.
Newman, in his interview with The News-Post, said he chose his words poorly in the email.
The university won’t offer a refund after Sept. 25, Newman said. He said the university already budgets for 20 to 25 students to drop out in the first semester.
Newman said his comment in the email was taken out of context. Since he already knew the students might leave, Newman wanted to ensure they received a tuition refund, he said.
Twenty-six freshmen were either academically ineligible or withdrew from the university by the end of the most recent fall semester, according to a letter published in The Echo. The letter was written by Matthew Steele, a data analyst for the Office of the President and a 2015 Mount alumnus.
Roughly 70 freshmen dropped out last school year, Newman said in his interview.
Newman said offering a tuition refund by a certain date was policy prior to his appointment, but was not widely publicized.
The university offers a tuition refund for students to withdraw, according to its undergraduate catalog. The deadline isn’t pinned to a single date. If students withdraw by the end of the first week of school, they can receive a 100 percent tuition reimbursement. If students withdraw by the end of the second week, they receive 80 percent, and so on, until the end of the fifth week of school, when they receive a 20 percent refund.
After a September presentation that detailed survey results, Newman said, he learned that the retention program to assist struggling students had not been implemented. He said he was frustrated that so much time and energy was wasted, and used the metaphor comparing students to bunnies.
In an investigation by the Board of Trustees, board members acknowledged Newman used an inappropriate metaphor and noted that he had apologized. The board voted unanimously on a resolution of full confidence in Newman, according to a board statement.
In their investigation, board members concluded that a small group of faculty and alumni were attempting to undermine and force Newman’s departure.
Kendzierski wrote in an email that because the investigation is ongoing and pertains to personnel, the board cannot comment, according to university policy.
Newman said he believes the board’s assessment is fair. He said the resistance from some faculty who were supposed to implement the new retention program backs the board’s conclusion.
The retention program was not carried out, though the Board of Trustees indicated in its statement that the university will try again to implement it.
Although the data was collected from the survey, nothing was accomplished with it, Newman said. The Mount Cares Committee was supposed to meet weekly to discuss students who were not on track. That didn’t happen.
Newman said a breakdown of communication occurred, but “it shouldn’t have been that hard” to implement the program.
While some faculty members raised concerns in the course of evaluating the program, these smaller pieces should not have halted progress of the program completely, Newman said.
“The big picture was important, and the big picture was missed by this group,” Newman said about some faculty members who worked on the program.
Newman pledged during the interview to communicate better. He said he was not privy to smaller details surrounding the retention program because he was separated by layers of management, and in turn, faculty weren’t informed as well as they should have been of the program.
Administrators at nearby Hood College said they had never heard of such a concept of colleges issuing refunds.
In an interview, Olivia White, Hood’s vice president of student life and the dean of students, and Bill Brown, the vice president of enrollment management, said Hood’s mission is to retain students whenever possible. In the previous school year, 75 percent of Hood’s freshmen class continued from their first year of college to their second.
At Hood, most energy is focused on first-year students, who are more likely to drop out, though the college works with all struggling students, White said.
Faculty members and student advisers might contact White’s office to alert administration of a student who has floundered academically. A dozen or so faculty members are part of a committee that meets every other week to discuss these students and brainstorm ways to assist.
Professors might refer a student to the school’s Center for Academic Achievement and Retention, which primarily offers academic supports, White said.
The school only relies on tools such as surveys when a student has already been identified as struggling, White said. Then, a survey might be administered as an instrument of self-reflection, so students can decide if they need to improve on time management or note-taking, for example.
“There’s no sort of satisfaction with a 75 percent retention rate,” Brown said. “There are students that leave for situations beyond our control and we understand that, but we want to continue to get better.”
A retention program like the Mount’s might be unprecedented in higher education, said Michelle Cooper, president of the Institute for Higher Education, a nonprofit that focuses on research efforts.
Cooper urged the Mount to consider the implications on both the campus and overall higher education community.
Offering a refund is interesting because higher education is being considered more often as a consumer good, Cooper said. But even though the Mount might be prepared to offer refunds, other institutions are not. She questioned if the president thought through all aspects of the program.
Cooper said a semester’s first few weeks is not sufficient time to judge a student’s success.
She particularly was concerned about the psychological effects of “weeding out” certain students through a survey.
Many at-risk students, students of color and students from low- or-moderate income backgrounds are often cast aside already, she said.
“A student might be demoralized by the entire encounter,” Cooper said.
Instead, she said she would like to see intervention programs before students get to the university, such as through partnerships with K-12 schools.
“The Mount needs to be careful, very careful,” Cooper said.