Years ago I had the privilege of running in a few 5K races at Mount St. Mary’s University (MSMU) in Emmitsburg, MD. My familiarity with MSMU from the race experiences was what probably drew my attention to an article I ran across at: http://www.crisismagazine.com. The article by Anne Hendershott, Can a Business Leader Understand a Caholic University? , explores the tension that exists when changes are needed at academic institutions in order to keep them financially viable. As always for any institution, making changes or simply staying the course for the time, leadership is a critical component. And, how well that was handled in the case discussed in this article I’ll leave to you to decide. The purpose of this blog simply is to help me work through what it means to be a successful enterprise while balancing goals, values, pragmatic considerations and the role of leadership. And the article may be of interest to you as well. Also, as an aside, the Hendershott article also mentions student and faculty unrest at the University of Missouri where I studied as an undergraduate. I must admit that I was embarrassed about the unrest at Mizzou, especially when the football team threatened to boycott a scheduled game if the disgruntled students’ demands were not met.
It is noted that in preparing for this post I spoke with the article’s author, Ms. Hindershott. I sent her a note requesting that she contact me as I had a question regarding her article. I wanted to determine for sure exactly who the “bunnies” were in her article. On my initial reading of the article I, and also John Kershenstein (see his comments below, believed the bunnies could refer to either students or programs or particular courses of study at MSMU. But, by the time she called in response to the note I sent I had already found the clarification I needed. So we simply chatted briefly. She was most gracious. [Anne Hendershott is Professor of Sociology and Director of the Veritas Center at Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio. She is the author of Status Envy: The Politics of Catholic Higher Education; The Politics of Abortion; and The Politics of Deviance (Encounter Books).]
Regarding the clarification I was seeking, I found an article by Susan Svrluga in the Washington Post most useful and I’m including that article, University president allegedly says struggling freshmen are bunnies that should be drowned, below. It contains additional interesting information about the MSMU situation. [Ms. Svrluga is a reporter covering higher education for the Post.]
Following the Hendershott and Syrluga articles I am also including comments from two of my friends, actually a father son combo, who shared their reactions to the situation at MSMU as described by Ms. Hendershott’s article. The father, John Kershenstein, a retired PhD Naval Research Laboratory Physicist, and his son Jay Kershenstein, a regional operations director for the mid-Atlantic group of VCA Animal Hospitals. They have different perspectives. Jay, the son, actually attended MSMU and John was graduated from Georgetown University. MSMU is a very strong adherent to basic Catholic doctrine. Georgetown University, not so much. RMF
Can a Business Leader Understand a Catholic University?
by Anne Hendershott
In an attempt to help their highly ranked—yet financially struggling—Catholic university, the Board of Trustees at Mount St. Mary’s in Emmitsburg, MD, hired Simon Newman, a Los Angeles private equity and strategic planning leader to be its new president in 2014. A year later, Newman found himself at the center of a faculty-fed firestorm over some intemperate remarks. According to media sources, Newman was talking with some faculty members about retention strategies when he jokingly said: “This is hard for you because you think of the students as cuddly bunnies, but you can’t, you just have to drown the bunnies … put a Glock to their heads.” The faculty did not appreciate the joke.
In fact, the controversy goes well beyond a bad joke. It appears that some faculty members simply do not welcome the kind of business culture Newman brought to campus. Newman admitted to a reporter at the Washington Post that although he does not remember the language he used in that informal (private) faculty meeting, he acknowledged that sometimes he uses harsh language: “I have probably done more swearing here than anyone else… It wasn’t intended to be anything other than that… Some of these conversations you may need to have with people are hard.”
Those conversations needed to happen at Mount St. Mary’s. Newman believes that the university will continue to suffer if faculty members fail to focus on core strategies—including retention rates. While Mount St. Mary’s University has been ranked highly among regional schools in the 2016 edition of Best Colleges by US News, and has been lauded by the Cardinal Newman Society as one of the most “faithful” Catholic colleges in the country, the school struggles financially. In 2013, Forbes ranked it one of the least “financially fit schools in America,” assigning it a D grade on “financial fitness.” In the Forbes financial rankings of 927 colleges, Mount St. Mary’s was one of 107 colleges to receive the D grade—ranking 888th out of 927 in terms of the balance sheets and operational strength.
Forbes’s Matt Schifrin writes: “Almost all colleges have noble mission statements, but few have pervasive cultures or are able to focus employees on core competencies the way great companies like Coke, IBM and Wells Fargo do. Most colleges and universities try to be all things to all people.” The trend has been to expand majors and departments to attract more students, but such strategies can be costly. While catering to the desires of students may attract more applicants, it does not guarantee financial viability or ensure high academic success. Such expansion of campus programs and personnel may have been justified when the number of college-bound high school graduates grew from 1990 to 2010. Yet, as Forbes points out, the pool of college applicants has begun to shrink in recent years, making it necessary to cut programs institutions can no longer afford. Along with that demographic decline, there has also been a decline in household wealth. And, the federal government has admitted that the current federal loan program is not sustainable. All of this combines to create a financial crisis that presidents like Newman were hired to fix.
Mount St. Mary’s made a strategic choice in bringing a successful businessman like Simon Newman, but the campus culture may take a while to adjust. The “bunny” story broke when faculty members forwarded confidential emails to the campus newspaper—in violation of the Code of Conduct at Mount St. Mary’s and the fair use policy of their electronic email system. It appeared to some on campus that their intention was to damage the credibility and authority of the new president. Mount St. Mary’s Board Chair John E. Coyne issued a statement claiming this on the university website on January 25 suggesting that “we have found incontrovertible evidence of the existence of faculty and recent alums working to undermine and ultimately cause the exit of the president born out of a real resistance to positive change at Mount St. Mary’s.” Suggesting that the ultimate goal of a small group of faculty members is to undermine the president by “circulating mischaracterized accounts and flat-out falsehoods.”
While the media characterizations of the retention scheme appeared counter to the goals of a mission-driven Catholic College, Coyne claims that the media has mischaracterized a strategy that was in “full consistency with our Catholic values.” Acknowledging that President Newman has apologized for using an “inappropriate metaphor” in a private conversation with a faculty member, Coyne maintains that Mount St. Mary’s will continue to implement that retention strategy because “it will make Mount St. Mary’s a better university and more broadly, because it’s the right thing to do for students and families.” The strategy, however, is highly contentious because it employs a survey of poorly performing students as a means to encourage them to leave rather than helping them to succeed or improve the quality of student applicants.
Is a Business Leader Better Equipped to Deal with the Higher Ed Bubble?
Mount St. Mary’s is not alone in its precarious financial predicament. In his new book, The Higher Education Bubble, Glenn Harlan Reynolds writes that “America is facing a higher education bubble. Like the housing bubble, it is the product of cheap credit coupled with popular expectations of ever-increasing returns on investment, and as with housing prices, the cheap credit has caused college tuitions to vastly outpace inflation and family income. Now this bubble is bursting.” Reynolds cites a Money magazine report indicating that after adjusting for financial aid, the amount families pay for college tuition has skyrocketed 439 percent since 1982. Students and their families have been willing to take on tremendous debt because they always believed that whatever the cost, a college education was the ticket to prosperity. This created a bubble as students believed the value would continue to climb. The bubble is bursting now that there are no longer enough “excessively optimistic” students to fuel it.
To meet this new challenge, increasing numbers of colleges and universities—including Catholic colleges and universities—are turning to business leaders to lead their institutions. According to a study by the American Council on Education, 20 percent of U.S. college presidents in 2012 came from fields outside academia, up from 13 percent six years earlier. It is likely that this figure has increased since the ACE study was done in 2012. Most of the non-academic college presidents come from the business world. Furthermore, Atlantic magazine points out that
proponents of the non-academic candidates say that leaders from the world of business or government or law are needed to innovate, control costs and manage a complex organization like a college institution. They have proven skills in fundraising and important connections in their professional networks… With growing resistance to high tuition costs, increased administrative costs, and tightening government resources, business leaders would seem to be a good fit for the job.
But, Atlantic also points out that critics of what they see as the “corporatization of the university” charge that these nontraditional college presidents do not understand the culture and traditions of academia that value debate and shared governance. They charge that these business leaders act autocratically—cutting costs by replacing tenured faculty with lower paid adjuncts, implementing online alternatives to traditional classroom instruction, and, as in the case of President Newman, devising what they see as dubious retention schemes.
In October, Timothy M. Wolfe, the former president of the University of Missouri paid the price for poor relations with faculty when he was forced to resign for “failing to consult with faculty and students about several major decisions and was dismissive of students’ concerns when racial protests in nearby Ferguson, Missouri, spilled over onto campus. Some charged that Wolfe’s non-academic roots meant that he wasn’t interested in fostering dialogue with students. Still, it is possible that some of the cost cutting strategies that Wolfe had implemented led—in part—to the poor relations he developed on campus. The Chronicle of Higher Education pointed out that Wolfe allowed the graduate student health insurance subsidy to expire. Graduate students marched, threatened to strike, formed Facebook groups bringing national attention to their plight. Within a week, the decision was reversed—demonstrating weakness on the part of the president and generating additional mistrust.
Likewise, the contributors to the “bunny drowning” controversy are much more complex than retention strategies. Like Missouri’s President Wolfe, Mount St. Mary’s president announced major changes to the retiree health insurance plan last fall. The decision engendered tremendous hostility toward the new president as three retired professors published a letter to the editor charging the new president with “dumping the retirees after decades of service.” Claiming that “other cost cutting measures should have been implemented before burdening retirees and current employees with healthcare cuts, such as the exorbitant costs of the new administrative structure… Perhaps if it had been handled as graciously as (former) President Houston had handled negative financial news, the response would have been different… This is not the Mount we knew for decades.”
Indeed, it is not the Mount these professors knew for decades. That Mount may have been on firmer financial ground in years past. Today it is not. Nor is Newman to blame for the precarious financial situation he found at Mount St. Mary’s. There is much blame to go around. One area of excess may be executive compensation. Public records reveal some of the highest salaries in the tier of comparable colleges and universities. According to IRS filings, in 2012, Thomas H. Powell, who was then the president of Mount St. Mary’s, received a total compensation package of $581,551, which included $458,192 in salary and another $123,359 in benefits. In 2013, President Powell received a raise of 10.5 percent bringing his total compensation to $642,849, which included a salary of $495,772 and $147,077 in benefits. Other senior administration officials are also well compensated. At a time when faculty health benefits are being cut to address the school’s financial challenges, some may likely ask whether there will be any shared sacrifice by members of the administration.
Mount St. Mary’s has so much to offer but its strengths cannot be preserved if its financial challenges are not addressed. Strong leadership is needed as well as a recognition by all that changes are necessary if the university is to survive well into the future. Late last month, the university’s Board unanimously concluded that “President Newman continues to be the right kind of talented leader to be at the vanguard of Catholic higher education growth.” As one of a few dozen truly faithful Catholic universities in the country, as identified by the Cardinal Newman Society, Mount St. Mary’s is blessed with a faithful Catholic faculty fully committed to the goals of Catholic higher education as identified in Pope John Paul’s apostolic document, Ex Corde Ecclesiae—from the “Heart of the Church.”
President Newman could be a transformational leader who can bring tremendous benefits to Mount St. Mary’s. But, it is clear that some on the faculty do not believe he has the best interests of the students or the faculty at heart. Any business consultant will tell us that trust lies at the heart of a functioning cohesive team. Patrick Lencioni writes in The Five Dysfunctions of a Team that “Trust is the confidence among team members that their peers’ (and their leaders’) intentions are good and that there is no reason to be protective or careful around the group.” Without it, teamwork is all but impossible. The most important action that a leader must take to encourage the building of trust on a team is to demonstrate vulnerability first—admit that they do not know everything there is to know. President Newman needs to be willing to learn about the culture of a faithful Catholic community like Mount St. Mary’s—directly addressing the campus culture—building bridges by creating a climate of trust with the faculty, staff, and students as valued partners in their institution’s recovery.
Now the Washington Post article:
Amid a conversation about student retention this fall, the president of Mount St. Mary’s University told some professors that they need to stop thinking of freshmen as “cuddly bunnies,” and said: “You just have to drown the bunnies … put a Glock to their heads.”
Simon Newman was quoted in the campus newspaper, The Mountain Echo, on Tuesday, in a special edition that reported the university’s president had pushed a plan to improve retention rates by dismissing 20 to 25 freshmen judged unlikely to succeed early in the academic year. Removing students who are more likely to drop out could hypothetically lead to an improvement in a school’s federal retention data; the deadline for submitting enrollment data is in late September.
Newman, a private-equity chief executive officer and entrepreneur who was appointed president of the private university in Emmitsburg, Md., in 2015, said Tuesday that there are some accurate facts in the Echo story, but “the overall tone of the thing is highly inaccurate.”
“The inferences, the innuendo, it’s not accurate at all — the conclusions one would naturally draw from reading it,” Newman said in an interview with The Washington Post. He described an intensive, multi-pronged effort to improve retention rates, because the school loses 20 to 25 percent of its first-year students. School administrators, he said, want to be sure their customers, the students, are successful.
He said he didn’t remember exactly what he said in the conversation that was quoted, but acknowledged he has sometimes used language that was regrettable.
“I’ve probably done more swearing here than anyone else,” Newman said. “It wasn’t intended to be anything other than, ‘Some of these conversations you may need to have with people are hard.’”
It wasn’t indicative of the retention program, he said, or the move to make the university “student-centric.”
A professor who was part of the conversation The Echo quoted confirmed to The Post that the quotes were accurate.
Newman, who earned his liberal arts undergraduate degree with honors from Cambridge and his MBA from Stanford, was described by a former administrator as bringing a blunt, analytical business perspective to the management of the school. Most small private colleges feel enrollment pressure; Mount St. Mary’s has about 2,300 students.
“We need to grow,” Newman said. “I’d like to see us double the size of the university in the next 10 years.”
To do that, he said, the school must be very responsive to what students and employers are seeking, adding programs such as cyber security, questioning whether languages such as French and German are as critical as Chinese and Arabic, and shifting the focus from “internal constituents” to students.
“Change is hard,” he said. Coming in after a longtime president, “I wasn’t brought into the school to keep things the same. I was brought in to take it to the next level.”
The Mountain Echo reporters wrote that Newman’s retention plan included administering a survey to all freshmen, with this introduction: “This year, we are going to start the Veritas Symposium by providing you with a very valuable tool that will help you discover more about yourself. This survey has been developed by a leadership team here at The Mount, and it is based on some of the leading thinking in the area of personal motivation and key factors that determine motivation, success, and happiness. We will ask you some questions about yourself that we would like you to answer as honestly as possible. There are no wrong answers.”
But the paper reported on an email exchange that expressed a desire to eliminate a certain number of students, based on the survey results, by the Sept. 25 cutoff date when the university would be required to report enrollment numbers to the federal government.
The plan, the paper reported, sparked strong pushback from some members of the faculty and the administration.
An email from Newman, the paper reported, explained: “My short term goal is to have 20-25 people leave by the 25th [of Sep.]. This one thing will boost our retention 4-5%. A larger committee or group needs to work on the details but I think you get the objective.”
Several people included in the email exchange did not respond to the Post’s requests for comment Tuesday.
After an assembly in September at which the results of the survey were discussed with students, Newman spoke with some staff and faculty members, said John Larrivee, an associate professor of economics who was part of the conversation. The president asked a professor to come up with a list of students unlikely to make it based on performance in the first few weeks, and was told they didn’t have enough information to know that. One of the goals of the symposium was to help ease students’ transition to college, and with this proposal they might be kicking out some students who would be successful.
Newman responded that “there will be some collateral damage.”
He also said, as first reported by the Echo and confirmed by Larrivee, that “this is hard for you because you think of the students as cuddly bunnies, but you can’t. You just have to drown the bunnies … put a Glock to their heads.”
Larrivee said faculty members have discussed Newman’s blunt manner, which can be jarring in academia. He said he tried to think of it as a situation in which someone had analyzed a situation, identified a problem and saw a solution.
“I could see, from a business person’s perspective, some merit in helping students realize early that this is not the best place for them,” Larrivee said. “But for the Mount, we care deeply about all our students and it would have to be done out of concern for them. Thus our first duty is to our students and for anyone who comes within our circle,” to express, in effect, “we’re glad that you’ve come, we certainly hope that you’ll stay, but if it turns out you’ve come and decided it’s not appropriate for you, we want to help you, out of love, realize that it’s not right for you.”
No students were identified as a result of the survey, the Echo reported, and no students dismissed as a result.
The chairman of the board of trustees, who did not respond to requests for comment from The Post on Tuesday, wrote a letter to the editor of the Echo in December, which the paper published Tuesday.
The Echo reported that Newman wrote in an email to the campus community on Dec. 22: “It has never been a goal to ‘kick out’ first year students because they were not doing well.”
Newman said that in the past, faculty members would reach out to students who seemed to be struggling after six weeks, perhaps referring them to counseling or academic help. But the research indicates that six weeks into school might be too late, he said, because students might have already decided they’re not in the right place by then.
School administrators decided to do much more to try to identify students who weren’t happy early on, by tracking things such as whether they were going to events on campus, whether they were attending classes and eating meals, and they created the survey, Newman said. Then he envisioned, for those who seemed to be struggling or withdrawn, “a more serious intervention, a come-to-Jesus meeting, as it were. ‘We noticed you haven’t responded to the help — is this really right for you?’ Have this honest-to-God conversation then.”
That talk, he said, that they may be happier at Towson or a community college, could also save students money. Twenty-three students were dismissed for academic reasons over the winter break, he said, with a lot more debt than they would have incurred had they left earlier for a place that was a better fit.
He said to paint all their retention efforts as just trying to dismiss people “is a complete mischaracterization of the entire program.”
The Echo’s editor did not immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday; the newspaper’s adviser praised the students’ hard work. Leaders of student government referred questions to the university spokesperson.
The school, the second-oldest Catholic university in the country, prides itself on being a nurturing place, as it proclaims on its website: “The Mount is a community where doors are held open by people you never met but who soon become your best friends. The people at the Mount genuinely care for you, they care that you succeed, whether inside or outside of the classroom. They care about your family and friends. They care about your classes that you are taking, your job interviews and your applications to graduate school. They care what you are doing now and ten years into the future.”
John Kershenstein commented:
What bothers me about all this is that so-called Catholic universities like my alma mater Georgetown and Notre Dame which have thrown their Catholicity out the window (are doing well? RMF) while places like the Mount which retain their identity are suffering.
I saw a similar situation when The Naval Research Laboratory’s Director of Research (DOR), Alan Berman, left for a university in Florida. He was one of if not the best DORs NRL has ever had. I had the privilege of working for him. The air heads at the university revolted in much the same way as at the Mount. Some academics would rather see their institution die than change their out of touch notions of what academia should be. They wouldn’t last a minute in the private or even government sector. I say, “Drown dem bunnies.”
John later added:
When I originally read the article I thought the bunnies where subjects/courses that were less relevant to the Mount’s mission. I didn’t realize he referred to students. When I was at GU I was in this context a drowned bunny. My father, grandfather and an uncle all died within a few months of each other and my grades almost went to the grave with them. Thanks to a very understanding English professor who knew me well, I was re-admitted after taking a year off and I did quite well after that.
Jay Kershenstein wrote:
1) I am a huge Simon Sinek fan (“leaders eat last” and “start with why”), he has a great you tube TED talk which has inspired many in the business world: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IPYeCltXpxw.
1) What is first on my mind, is what is Newman’s “WHY”? They mention strategic planning in his “bio” in the beginning of the article. Well, in order to do that process correctly, the Mission, Vision and Values MUST be defined FIRST. The WHY!! It looks like there may be a disconnect with him and his team, meaning he didn’t set forth a vision properly. Closed meeting or not, language like that is not acceptable. Yes, change is hard, but looks like he is going about it all wrong. People do not buy what you do, they buy why you do it! He has lost the trust of his closest teammates, and once that is gone, it takes a long time to get it back
2) Forget the Catholic piece, lets focus on CHRISTIAN values. A core value there is a climate of trust, and its mentioned at the bottom (of the Hendershott article, RMF). How in the heck can that kind of climate be created when it appears like “fear based” management in use. He is basically saying, let’s FLUSH poor performers. One of the things I loved about the Mount was the fact that professors didn’t preach, they lived the word. I cannot tell you how many professors pushed me along, privately at times, when I was a poor performer. We all are at some point. What ever happened to the coaching part of leadership here? He is missing that.
3) Let’s NOT forget that the students can be seen as the #1 asset of a school, yes great professors too, perhaps remind his team that they need to create that climate of trust first, get students who are performing poorly in touch with those that can help. Isn’t that what Jesus would have done? Certainly not kill the bunnies. He needs to practice SERVANT LEADERSHIP, modeled by Christ, and implement change that way, its possible.
4) The executive compensation is an area to be explored. Reward execs ONLY when growth and retention rates are HIGH. Seems overpaid.
Just to throw my 2 cents in here. If it wasn’t for a few great professors I had at the Mount, I would have been a drowned bunny. Why not explore turning the poor performers around first where Christian values are used by the professors to do so. And, who sets the bar to define what bunnies should be flushed? Poor leadership by Mr. Newman, he has lost the trust of his team
(Since trust is a huge part of the issue in these articles you may wish to check our Simon Sinek’s TED Talk on that topic at: Simon Sinek – Why good leaders make you feel safe. RMF)
Please see followup article and observations in the comments section of this blog. RMF