Phi Beta Cons

Speak Softly and Drop the Stick

Presidents get into trouble when they speak colorfully and when they speak the truth. Recently, the president of Mount Saint Mary’s, a Catholic college in Maryland, did both.

He had tried to introduce a survey of freshmen that would identify students who showed no interest in college or who were poorly prepared. His goal was to send about 25 students back home before September 25—the last date for refunding tuition.

Simon P. Newman wasn’t just thinking about the kids, of course. He wanted to raise the freshman retention rate above its present 78 percent. The school’s graduation rate is 66 percent, and freshman retention is an important predictor. But he recognized that it would be helpful for likely drop-outs to get out before their loans kicked in.

His comments to a faculty member worked its way into the school newspaper (and then the Web): “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.”

And the faculty didn’t like the idea. Unfair. So they simply failed to formulate and distribute the survey. As one told the Chronicle of Higher Education, “I don’t think it’s ethical to tell someone they aren’t going to make it in college after four weeks.”

But as Newman told the Chronicle, “It’s immoral to have them take on debt doing something they don’t want to do.” That’s a truth. How to deal with it is the problem. Apparently, a freshman survey that faculty don’t like isn’t the way to do it.  

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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