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Student newspaper inspires controversy

Michelle Adams, Executive Editor

A small Roman Catholic university in Maryland is getting national news coverage after its president announced a controversial student-retention plan that resulted in the firing of two esteemed professors and the threat of expulsion for several student journalists.

President Simon Newman, who has been with Mount St. Mary’s University in Emmitsburg, Md. for barely one year, hoped to earn the school more funding by improving federal dropout statistics and retention rates. His plan involved encouraging certain students, based on their answers in a survey, to drop out of college early, essentially “giving up” on them before their higher education careers even begin.

“An ongoing grade point average below 2.0, failure to turn in assignments, not attending class or not logging into student portals are some indicators that a student may not make it through their degree program,” and reasons for a student to be encouraged to drop out, Newman said. “And there are social indicators as well – failure to join clubs or activities and complaining about finances or stress.

“My short-term goal is to have 20-25 people leave by the 25th [of September],” Newman said in an email. “This one thing will boost our retention 4-5 percent. A larger committee or group needs to work on the details but I think you get the objective.”

Faculty members were hesitant to support this notion, claiming it is their duty to encourage and harbor success from all of their students. Instead, many suggested raising admissions standards.

President Newman was adamant to justify his claims, however. He told his staff to rethink their view of at-risk students, saying, “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 also argued that dropping out early would save many students tens of thousands of dollars, because they may not realize their weaknesses in college until much later.

The president has also been accused of claiming that, “Catholic doesn’t sell,” and working to diminish the religion’s presence at the university in hopes of increasing enrollment.

These details of the retention plan were leaked to the student body and the public first in Mount St. Mary’s student newspaper, The Mountain Echo.

Following this release, the newspaper’s faculty adviser, a law professor and former trustee, was promptly fired, as well as another tenured professor, the Washington Post reported.

John Coyne III, representing the Mount St. Mary’s Board of Trustees, also scolded the news staff, calling the revealing article, “disturbing and inflammatory. It is also the product of a disgruntled employee and the creative and destructive imagination of a student being spoon fed his information.” He continued to criticize the student newspaper, suggesting that the students were incompetent to be reporting on this information, and that revealing the information was a violation of the university’s conduct policies.

Some administrators have even called for the expulsion of the handful of student newspaper staff members, arguing that they tarnished the reputation of the college.

Alternatively, Wall Street Journal staff reporter John W. Miller commended the staff in a letter to the editor “for [their] reporting on President Newman’s plan to expel freshmen deemed unlikely to survive until graduation.”

In the news industry, Miller said, “sometimes we annoy, but if we’re accurate and fair, the result is that the governments, institutions, companies and people we cover are made to hold themselves to higher standards of character, clarity and honesty, to the benefit of society. It is a righteous and useful mission.”

UPDATE: Staff members at Mount St. Mary’s were pushing for the removal of President Newman in light of this controversy, and on March 1, he officially resigned.

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