Tuesday, February 09, 2016


From Farce to Tragedy



Simon Newman, at Mount Saint Mary’s, has made a national joke of himself.  First it was the “drown the bunnies” line about students, which is jarring enough from the head of a Christian college.  Then it was firing the provost for pointing out, correctly, that the “drown the bunnies” plan was a bad idea.  Now he’s summarily firing tenured faculty for transgressing a “duty of loyalty” by disagreeing with him.

This has gone from embarrassing to appalling to surreal.  The fact that the Board hasn’t fired him yet, as of this writing, is beyond belief.

Dwight Eisenhower was a wildly successful general and a respected President of the United States, but he struggled as president of Columbia University.  Higher education is a diverse world in some ways, but it’s a world; it has its own rules and expectations, just like the worlds of finance or the military do.  If you try to impose the rules of one world on another -- in either direction -- it’s unlikely to end well.  President Newman is trying to run a college like a hedge fund.  It isn’t working.

If the damage were confined to Mount Saint Mary’s, I could shrug it off.  But it has ripple effects.

College administrators have an uphill battle on a good day.  In many places, we’re facing demographic headwinds.  Benefits costs are strangling operating budgets, but folks who don’t read budgets don’t know that and make assumptions about where all the money goes.  The political climate vacillates between lovely words and terrible appropriations.  And local issues -- whether personnel, politics, or processes -- are never far from the surface.  

On the best of days, there’s suspicion of administration among many faculty.  It’s usually at a higher level than is strictly healthy, but it fluctuates.  A single over-the-top bit of cartoonish villainy, even in another state, can be enough to set folks off.  

That’s no exaggeration.  When Scott Walker broke the unions in Wisconsin, I saw ripple effects among faculty in Massachusetts.  His moves made my life harder, even though I had nothing to do with them.  Ex officio guilt by association may be factually ridiculous, but it’s psychologically real.  It did damage on ground on which Walker never set foot.

Which is why I’m asking President Newman to step down.  Failing that, I’m asking the Board of Mount Saint Mary’s to fire him, and then to step down.

The longer this goes on, the harder it will be for all of us.  Distrust is contagious.  

I went into higher education because I care about education.  I went into administration because I saw a chance to make a positive difference that many of my faculty colleagues couldn’t or wouldn’t.  But I can only do that if people aren’t scared to death.  

When the Newman case just seemed silly, I wrote about it accordingly.  But now it has gone from farce to tragedy.  It has to end, and it has to end now.  You want to be decisive, President Newman?  Do it.  Make the decision to step down.

I agree with Matt that Simon Newman has heightened the suspicion that many faculty feel about administrators. To many faculty members, administrators are seen as overpaid suits who only think about money and in how to increase the school’s income and in how to cut costs. Everything gets reduced to some sort of bottom-line issue. Faculty fear that too many administrators regard tenure and shared governance as little more than unneeded nuisances that get in the way of effective university management and cost containment. But as Matt says, many faculty are really unaware of the fact that just about everything the college or university does costs money, and that this money has to come from somewhere. There are all sort of financial pressures that administrators have to deal with—the rising costs of medical benefits and pensions, the increasing litigious environment, the decline in federal and state funding, the need to provide more student amenities, the costs of computers and software, etc. It is small wonder that administrators think so often about money.

In the current environment, tenure is becoming increasing less valuable. I have become aware of increasing numbers of tenured faculty being forced out on trumped-up charges, without being allowed to present any sort of defense. It is outrageous to hear that a tenured faculty member at Mount Saint Mary’s was fired simply for being “disloyal”. In his case, his disloyalty was simply for disagreeing with the president on his plan to “drown the bunnies”. Back when I was teaching at Research-Intensive Technological Institute, I remember hearing about a tenured faculty member being forced out because he was writing letters to local high schools, telling them that they shouldn’t send their graduates to the Institute. Now *that* is disloyalty. But simply expressing dissent from administrative policies on academic matters should be an important part of academic freedom. I don’t know what the Mount Saint Mary’s faculty handbook says about tenure and academic freedom, but if what Simon Newman did is in violation of what the handbook says, he would have good grounds for a lawsuit. The AAUP should step up in defense of the tenured professor.

I understand that the provost also got fired over all this. But the provost serves at the pleasure of the president, and can be fired at any time for any reason or even for no reason at all. Fortunately, he had a tenured appointment which he could step back to. And the faculty member who advised the student newspaper which leaked the “drowned bunnies” quote also got canned. But he didn’t have tenure, and the rights of untenured faculty to academic freedom are sort of ambiguous, unless the faculty handbook says that academic freedom applies to all faculty members, whether or not they were tenured.

There must be an atmosphere of utter terror among the faculty at Mount Saint Mary’s. I am sure that they are watching what they say, lest they too be caught up in this Stalinist-like purge. If I were a faculty member at Mount Saint Mary’s and if I were sufficiently eminent and accomplished that I might have some degree of mobility, I would get my CV on the street right away. But in this depressed job market, the chances of a faculty member, who, like most of us, is not a superstar, in landing another faculty appointment are really not much better than the odds of winning the PowerBall lottery. Best to hunker down and keep your mouth shut.

It does seem that college and university presidents who come to the job without any sort of academic experience often have a difficult row to hoe and can easily get themselves into deep doo-doo. The main job of a university president is to raise money, but there are significant managerial responsibilities as well. If a president does not have some sort of experience in managing an academic institution, they can often make bad decisions that make them look foolish and can get everyone angry with them. Simon Newman had a Wall Street hedge fund background, and he was probably used to being able to simply fire anyone who expressed dissent or was perceived to be getting in his way of maximizing profits. I guess that the Board hired him with the expectation that his business experience would help him in keeping Mount Saint Mary’s fiscal house in order. Retired generals can also have problems when they become university presidents—they are used to having everyone stand up, salute, and obey whenever they barked out orders. A college or university is not like a business or the military, and it may be best to hire a president who has at least some experience in the management of an educational institution.
Similar events took place about 12 or 13 years ago at U. Southern Mississippi, when president Shelby Thames fired two tenured professors for "misuse of university resources." The "misuse" was looking up the academic background of the person Thames appointed VP-Research -- without a search or faculty input. It turned out that the appointee's vita overstated her credentials, including that she had been awarded tenure in the the U. Kentucky System. She hadn't received tenure anywhere, as best I remember. Yet, as VP-R she she would have veto authority in T&P award decisions. That was troubling to faculty.

What really made things really interesting was when, during the open arbitration hearing attended by throngs of faculty, Thames walked in with reams of paper, printouts of all of the two professors' email sent or received through the USM server. After that faculty would not use their USM computers or phones. They were all standing outside their buildings handling all of the phone conversations on private cell phones (mostly flip phones back then).

Over the course of three or so years a greater number of faculty left USM than the total faculty count. I was among them. I have landed a better job; so did the two fired tenured faculty -- within a couple of months at better institutions with higher salaries. Plus they won the arbitration judgment and wound up receiving double salaries for a year or more.

Someone even anonymously authored a whole novel with pseudonyms about the whole thing. It was hilarious.

Finally after a couple of years, the Mississippi Institute of Higher Learning (their regental entity) and Thames worked out an agreement by which he would retire or otherwise step down. By then the damage was too well done.

The interesting part is that Thames was a tenured faculty member himself, who, through his having worked up through the T&P rat-race himself, should have understood the academic traditions and culture that Matt notes. On the other hand, Thames made a lot of money for himself and for USM in polymer chemistry. And, he was an amazingly narcissistic person. Amazingly so.

So, like at least one presidential candidate I can think of, maybe money does something to a person that makes them do what Simon Newman has done. Or, is it narcissism that allows someone to lack the empathy or insight into a culture and its traditions? Maybe it's the intersection of those two factors. I don't know.

But, stuff like this happens, and I am happy with the general response to "bunny drowning" and firing tenured faculty for disloyalty and without due process. (Sheesh.)
wait i thought tenure was obsolete
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