Phi Beta Cons

Why Good Ideas End Up in the Ash Heap

The campus of Mount St. Mary’s, a Catholic college in Maryland, is in a tizzy. The president, Simon Newman, has demoted the provost, fired two faculty members, and put the college newspaper on a short leash. Faculty have retaliated with anger. The story was a lead feature in both the Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Ed on February 9, and another today on Inside Higher Ed. 

The turmoil stems from the president’s effort to weed out unprepared students last September before they made their first tuition payment. The proposal backfired; faculty resisted his instructions and the school newspaper quoted him as saying that he wanted to “drown the bunnies.” (The idea was to survey freshmen and find out the 20 or 25 who were unlikely to succeed in college and discourage them from staying in school.)

Earlier, I said that Newman was speaking truth – at any school, a number of freshmen should not be there – and the idea of informing them had merit. Btu Newman’s motives were attacked – he was just trying to up the school’s freshman retention, it was said. Yes, I’m sure he was, but that wasn’t his only goal, and freshman retention is measured for a reason.

But to follow up with firings is simply not done on campuses—and they seem outrageously inappropriate in this case anyway. Mr. Newman forgot that he is on a college campus. He acted the way he probably had earlier in his career, as a business strategist and venture capitalist. Sadly, the hostile forces, now aroused, will overpower Mr. Newman and his ideas, however promising, will go nowhere.

Jane S. ShawJane S. Shaw retired as president of the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy in 2015. Before joining the Pope Center in 2006, Shaw spent 22 years in ...

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