Feb 16 2016

The Debacle at Mount St. Mary’s


The Debacle at Mount St. Mary’s University

What does American higher education stand to lose with the continued corporatization of the academy? Its integrity.

We need only consider the debacle at Mt. Saint Mary’s University to measure the danger of importing business leaders, and their corporate ideologies, into non-profit educational institutions dedicated to the common good.

Simon Newman, the recently appointed president of Mount St. Mary’s, earned an MBA from Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business, and he boasts of a “strong background in private equity, strategy consulting, and operations.”

Former managing director of JP Capital Partners, and consultant to Bain & Co, Mr. Newman calls himself an “avid sportsman.” He evidently enjoys discharging employees, as well as guns, for in addition to firing two faculty members without due process in order “to squelch dissent,” he terminated seven high-ranking administrators months earlier.

How did someone with a non-academic background become the leader of the second-oldest Catholic university in the nation? The events unfolding at Mount St. Mary’s stem from corporatized boards of trustees appointing presidents from the business world (to instill fear among employees and crush dissent by eliminating individuals daring to challenge executive decisions).

Yet, full-time faculty members, particularly those with tenure, are not at-will employees who should cower before campus leaders. They are traditionally invested with greater job security and slightly-enhanced protections of speech, which ensure the free exchange of ideas and create space for the expression of notions deemed heterodox by the status quo.

As Rebecca Schuman aptly observes, the “fundamental difference between academia and the private sector is that in the private sector, profits are the only truth. In the academic sector, the only truth—according to the Mount St. Mary’s mission statement, for goodness’ sake—is the truth.”

In an impressive testament to Newman’s administrative overreach, more than 8,000 professors and academic professionals across the nation signed a petition to reinstate Edward Egan and Thane Naberhaus. This fervor over the incursion of corporate values in the academy reached a pitch on last Friday when president Newman was forced to reinstate the two fired professors.

Mr. Newman endured a torrent of national criticism that is diminishing the stature and reputation of Mount St. Mary’s as a religiously-affiliated liberal arts university. It was not for this purpose, one imagines, that this new president was appointed by the Board of Trustees last year.

Between the firings and his plans to turn this liberal arts institution into a professional school to prepare “students for a more technical skills-based job market,” it is little wonder that the faculty endorsed a letter asking Mr. Newman to resign his post this week for the good of the community.

Indeed, Mount St. Mary’s highlights the deleterious effect of business values in higher education, shines a light on administrative overreach and the erosion of faculty governance, and speaks to the urgency of protecting the American tradition of free speech on campus.

This debacle also underscores the reasons why the scourge of adjunctification is such a threat to American higher learning. When the faculty are made contingent, as are more than 70% of professors nationally, they face greater difficulty in rebuking authoritarian campus leaders (such as Mr. Newman)—and in halting the encroachment of business values into public and private institutions of higher learning.

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