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.