Faculty Sign Petition for Professors in Maryland

Rachael Franchini ‘19, Associate News Editor

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Nine Dickinson professors have signed a petition to reinstate two faculty members at Mount St. Mary’s University in Emmitsburg, Maryland, who were fired as a result of noncompliance with a controversial retention rate program instated by the university’s president. As of print time, a total of 8,494 professors from universities and colleges around the world have signed the petition.

The program, devised by Mount St. Mary’s President Simon Newman, was designed to dismiss 20-25 students in the class of 2019 in the first month of the fall 2015 semester prior to the mandatory submitting of class size to the federal government.  The motivation behind the program was to dismiss weak students before they could fail out of the college and affect its first year retention rate.

The two fired faculty were Ed Egan, campus newspaper adviser and prelaw program director, and Thane M. Naberhaus, a tenured philosophy professor. According to the petition to reinstate the professors, Egan was fired partly for his actions taken as student newspaper adviser, since the school newspaper first broke the stories leading to the controversy over the program.  Additionally, these faculty were fired without “any academic due process as required under AAUP [American Association of University Professors] guidelines” or ”customary standards of tenure,” according to the petition.

“The manner and circumstance of their dismissal raise serious questions about the respect given to moral conscience and intellectual freedom at Mount St. Mary’s,” the petition reads.  “As a university, it is bound by the standards that govern any university in respect to its faculty.”

The petition calls for the immediate reinstatement of the fired faculty members, and for the administration of the university to be held accountable for their actions.

One of the Dickinson professors who signed the petition was Carol Ann Johnston, professor of English.

“Retention is an important issue for all institutions of higher learning. When students enroll in a college, everyone’s goal is that they graduate with a degree. The institution should do its best to ensure that happens, which Dickinson certainly does,” Johnston stated.  “The professors were fired without due process, with President Newman giving the reason as disloyalty. When a professor has been at an institution for many years, he or she has a vested interest in the institution. Faculty with tenure, unlike other employees, are bound to an institution for life.  If a faculty member sees a behavior by representatives of the institution that is contrary to the goals of the institution as stated in its charter—or even an action that the professor judges would be detrimental to the institution—the professor has an obligation to speak out. Speaking from conscience is the loyal action, not silence.”

One of the most controversial aspects of the situation was Newman’s reference to struggling students as “cuddly bunnies” who needed to be “drown[ed].”  The student newspaper at Mount St. Mary’s quoted an email from Newman where he told professors that “you just have to drown the bunnies…put a Glock to their heads.”

“Referring to students as ‘bunnies’ that sometimes need to be either drowned or shot in the head is absurd and completely inappropriate,” said James Sias, assistant professor of Philosophy at Dickinson.  “But even aside from his insane choice of words, some of the other things he’s said in defense of the plan suggest very strongly that he does not think of students as people whose needs the school has an obligation to at least attempt to meet, but rather as mere numbers to be added or subtracted in whatever ways are necessary in order to meet some sort of quota.”

Joyce Bylander, vice president of Student Life, said that “Dickinson doesn’t weed students out” to improve its retention rate.

“First and foremost Dickinson only accepts students they believe can be successful here,” she stated.  “Then, the college puts in place a wide variety of resources and support systems to help students adjust to college both socially and academically…a strong faculty advising system, first-year seminars, college deans, RAs and First-year Mentors, the Writing Center and new Q Center, librarians and the Advising Center with peer tutors and Learning Support. Dickinson students through their own hard work and by accessing the resources provided are able to succeed. We are very proud of our retention rate.”

“Dickinson seeks to retain students from the moment they matriculate until they graduate,” Damon Yarnell, dean of Academic Advising said.  “If anything, the philosophy behind Dickinson’s approach appears to be the opposite of what the press has reported about St. Mary’s.  Rather than ‘weeding out’ new students who appear to be struggling, we work to connect with such students so we can help them assess any difficulties and provide appropriate support.  Our goal is to help all students meet Dickinson’s high academic standards.”