Academic Groups Criticize University Over Firings

After a tenured professor and a school newspaper adviser were fired under questionable circumstances by Mount St. Mary’s University, a variety of academic groups have spoken up against the actions, which are perceived to be reactions to criticism of the university's president.

It started with a survey—and ended with a huge spate of firings. The situation is still causing some lasting backlash for Maryland’s tiny Mount St. Mary’s University, especially from the world of associations.

The Catholic university has been dealing for months with the reverberations of a push by the school’s president, Simon Newman, to pinpoint troubled students and then encourage those students to drop out.

The situation blew up last month after the school’s newspaper, The Mountain Echo, published stories revealing how Newman used survey results to pursue the dismissal of as many as 25 students to help improve the university’s retention rate, despite staff criticism.

“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,” Newman was quoted as saying in a September email.

Since the report, on-campus critics of the president have become more prominent, and the school has responded by demoting the school’s provost and firing two faculty members, including the campus newspaper’s adviser and a tenured professor.

The professor, Thane M. Naberhaus, was told in a letter that he had violated “a duty of loyalty” to the school because of his recent actions. Later, however, he was informed that the university had reportedly changed its mind—he was not terminated, but suspended with pay.

However, the story may not end with the two professors. The Frederick News-Post reported on Thursday that seven other administrators were fired or demoted in October, though the situation had not previously received national attention.

Academic Groups Speak Up

The actions by the university have led to serious questions about academic freedom and conduct by university officials, and as a result, a number of groups have spoken up in the faculty members’ defense.

The American Association of University Professors sent a letter to Newman earlier this week criticizing the school’s firing of a tenured professor without a hearing.

“Coming, as it did, on the heels of public criticism over statements attributed to you, the dismissal raises the question whether it was in response to this criticism,” AAUP Associate Secretary Hans-Joerg Tiede wrote, according to The New York Times.

A widely circulated petition, signed by more than 8,000 academics around the country, cited the school’s lack of “academic due process as required under AAUP guidelines and the customary standards of tenure.”

Likewise, the American Philosophical Association argued that AAUP guidelines must be followed.

“The firing and removal of these faculty members without due process—and doing so for their exercise of freedom of expression—raises serious concerns about respect for the principles of academic freedom, tenure, and shared governance at Mount St. Mary’s University and harms not only the individual faculty members involved, but the entire Mount St. Mary’s community and beyond by chilling speech and undermining public discourse,” APA’s board wrote in a letter to the university.

The firing of Ed Egan, a nontenured professor who advised the campus newspaper, also led to concerns from the Student Press Law Center and the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.

“Mount St. Mary’s went nuclear,” FIRE Director Peter Bonilla said in a statement earlier this week. “It’s shocking that the university fired faculty members, including a tenured professor, for dissenting from the administration and raising awareness of an issue of great concern to the community. Speaking freely is a dangerous proposition at the Mount if it is willing to go this far to silence its critics.”

On campus, meanwhile, the school’s emeritus professor of Christian ethics, Germain Grisez, recommended that tenured professors join a local AAUP chapter.

“Two faculty members, one of them tenured, have been summarily dismissed. As colleagues, you dare not allow that dismissal to stand,” Grisez wrote in a Facebook post. “Until now, Mount faculty never needed an association to look after its collective self-interest. You do now.”

The main campus of Mount St. Mary’s University. (Greenhonda/Wikimedia Commons)

Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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