Alumni of Mount St. Mary's University are calling for the ouster of the school's president after he fired two faculty members and demoted the provost amid a growing controversy over a new academic policy the president implemented and insensitive remarks he made defending it.
The alumni are angry over the firings and demotion, which came after those faculty members opposed President Simon Newman's plan to weed out freshmen who were struggling academically early in the school year. By encouraging them to leave the university, the move was meant to improve Mount St. Mary's student retention rate and national ranking.
Some graduates also were offended by comments Newman made, and has since apologized for, justifying his decision as a necessary evil and saying that the struggling students should not be viewed as "cuddly bunnies" but as bunnies who should be drowned or shot in the head.
John Singleton, who earned an undergraduate degree and a master's degree in business administration from the university in 1987, was among several alumni calling for Newman's ouster.
"It's not about raiding and restructuring," said Singleton, alluding to Newman's 30-year background in business and finance. "An atmosphere of hostile takeover does nothing for our students at Mount St. Mary's University. It sends all the wrong messages and gives the appearance of an out-of-control administration that refuses to abide by its own rules."
The American Association of University Professors wrote an open letter to Newman on Tuesday urging him to reinstate the tenured faculty member who was fired without an administrative hearing, an action it characterized as "fundamentally at odds with basic standards of academic due process."
A separate petition signed by thousands of professors from across the country circulated Tuesday on the Internet and demanded that the faculty members be reinstated.
The furor began last month when the student newspaper, The Mountain Echo, wrote about the school's plans to identify freshmen who were unlikely to succeed and ask them to leave early in their first semester. The student newspaper quoted Newman as saying that those students should not be compared to "cuddly bunnies." According to two professors who heard the conversation, Newman said: "You just have to drown the bunnies ... put a Glock to their heads."
Newman, who has been in his position for less than a year, and John E. Coyne, chairman of the university's board of trustees, declined to comment through a spokesman. The university released a statement saying that the professor with tenure was terminated because he violated policies.
"He was not terminated for expressing differing views from those of the administration," the statement said. "To have done so would have been contrary to the academic and educational environment that has always characterized Mount St. Mary's University."
The university did not address the other firing or the demotion, calling them internal personnel matters.
The board of trustees passed a unanimous resolution last month expressing full confidence in Newman. The board also confirmed the "inappropriate metaphor" that Newman used and noted that he had used it in private conversation and had apologized.
Before his arrival at the university last March, Newman was managing director of JP Capital Partners, a private equity firm, and CEO of Cornerstone Management Group, both in Los Angeles. Some alumni questioned whether Newman was applying the cutthroat practices of the business world to a liberal arts institution that abides by the values of shared governance between the faculty and administration.
Other alumni worry that Newman is moving the 2,200-student university nestled in the Catoctin Mountains in Emmitsburg away from its founding Christian principles as the second-oldest Catholic university in the country.
"A lot of us have seen the school progress away from the Catholic liberal arts core that we knew and found so attractive in the school," said Krista Wujek Threefoot, who graduated in 2001 with a degree in English and world cultures. "There's concern that they're trying to make the school more marketable, but in doing so are getting rid of what makes it stand out among other schools in the region."
Ed Egan, who was faculty adviser to the student newspaper and director of the school's pre-law program, said in an interview that his termination left him stunned. He is a graduate of the school and said his father also attended Mount St. Mary's. Egan lives adjacent to the campus he is now barred from setting foot on. He did not have tenure.
The student reporters gave the administration seven weeks to respond before publishing the article in late January with the "bunnies" quote, Egan said.
"Mount St. Mary's is a place I've loved all my life, and I'm not going to stop loving it," Egan said. "But to me, love sometimes calls upon us to speak difficult truths."
Rebecca Schisler, one of two students who wrote the "bunnies" article and The Mountain Echo's news editor, said students were shocked by the abrupt firings.
"The professors that were let go were some of the most well-respected and loved professors at this university," said Schisler, 19, of Talbot County.
David Rehm, who was demoted from provost and replaced by an interim provost, remains on the faculty. Rehm could not be reached for comment.
Thane Naberhaus, who was an associate professor of philosophy, said he was handed a letter with references to his lack of loyalty to the university as reason for his firing. Naberhaus had tenure, which typically affords professors a period of due process before they can be fired.
Naberhaus said he was unsure exactly what led to his firing but that he had raised questions in a recent faculty meeting and posted about the school's turmoil on social media.
"It seems that it's within my right to ask questions when the university's best interest is at stake," he said. "There's a whole host of things that I find deeply troubling and I want answers."