Students at Mount St. Mary's University were in a state of shock over their president likening freshmen who are most likely to drop out as bunnies that should be drowned or shot, said Student Government Association President Abel Gonsalves.
"They were kind of just, like, surprised it was ever said," said Gonsalves, a business major who's slated to graduate this year, in an interview with VICE News. "I can't imagine the president ever saying something like that. He's never said he wants to drown someone or used that metaphor."
Gonsalves was reacting to the media storm that's erupted at the 2,300-student Catholic school in Emmitsburg, Maryland following revelations of President Simon Newman's plan to conduct a survey designed to help determine which students should be dismissed from the university in the fall 2015 semester before they quit and harmed the institution's retention rate as tallied by federal regulators.
The Mountain Echo, the university's student newspaper, first reported on the survey last month. National news outlets have since confirmed the students' reporting.
Newman wanted to cull as many as 25 students to increase the school's retention rate by as much as five percent, according to reports. Retention rates affect school rankings, which in turn drive alumni donations and student application numbers.
Other administrators thought the survey idea was boneheaded. How, they asked, could an hour-long survey that asked students about their academic goals and psychological health predict whether or not they would make it through the semester or academic year?
"This survey was ill-conceived on many levels," wrote Liberal Arts College Dean Josh Hochschild in an email obtained by The Mountain Echo. "If one of the intended uses is to identify students to dismiss, I think it is unethical. How can we in good conscience administer this?"
The dispute came to a head in September during a meeting when Newman — a former private equity fund manager and entrepreneur, not a scholar — said critics of the survey were soft.
"This is hard for you because you think of the students as cuddly bunnies, but you can't," Newman told administrators, according to The Mountain Echo. "You just have to drown the bunnies… put a Glock to their heads."
"You just have to drown the bunnies… put a Glock to their heads."
University spokesman Christian Kendzierski told VICE News that Newman apologized to university trustees, faculty, and staff for his language soon after The Mountain Echo published its story. But Kendzierski noted that the president had not apologized to students.
Speaking to The Washington Post on the same day The Mountain Echo story ran, Newman said his comments were taken out of context. Around a quarter of Mount St. Mary's freshmen now fail to finish freshman year, he said. He believed the school needed to take tough actions to fix the situation. "The inferences, the innuendo, it's not accurate at all," he said.
On Monday, Newman again garnered a flurry of criticism when he abruptly fired Ed Egan, faculty advisor to The Mountain Echo, and Associate Philosophy Professor Thane Naberhaus, who had been vocal in his criticism of the president, the Frederick News-Post reported. A few days before, he had demoted Provost David Rehm, who remains at the school as a professor. Newman had reportedly already removed Hochschild from his job as dean but kept him as a professor, too.
The university said Naberhaus had violated his "duty of loyalty" to the university in their termination letter, according to Inside Higher Ed. He had tenure, however, which usually protects academics from retaliation for expressing their points of view in scholarly or academic matters. He's now reportedly contemplating a lawsuit challenging the school for terminating him legal action.
Folks from alumni to The American Association of University Professors have sounded alarm bells over what they view as an attack on academic freedom. More than 7,300 academics have signed a petition protesting Egan and Naberhaus' firings.
"The manner and circumstance of their dismissal raises serious questions about the respect given to moral conscience and intellectual freedom at Mount St. Mary's," the petition states.
The school said those worries were unfounded.
"We will confirm that Mr. Naberhaus was terminated because his actions violated multiple University policies and the University's standards of ethical conduct," said a university statement. "He was not terminated for expressing differing views from those of the Administration."
On Wednesday, Newman sent a letter to the school community saying they should trust him.
"We, as an institution, have received quite a bit of press recently and have chosen not to respond more forcefully with information about the specifics of their conduct which we have available to us," said the letter. "In keeping with our values, we will take the high road. But it is critical that you know that we would never undertake actions like that unless the conduct in question warranted it."
Gonsalves said he was inclined to give Newman the benefit of the doubt. The president often has dinner with students, Gonsalves said, adding that he's a nice guy.
"No person at the university in the administration — the president, the vice president — they never want to hurt students," said Gonsalves. "Which is why when this language is put in the news, someone like myself, being a student, is shocked to hear it."
Gonsalves didn't doubt The Mountain Echo reporting, however.
"The students from the Echo were just reporting what they were told," he said. "That is good journalism."
Katherine Wu, a junior biology major, said she wished Newman's letter explained why the faculty had been let go or demoted.
"It was just really vague and trying to be reassuring but kind of failing," she told VICE News. "It struck me as slightly condescending."
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