The Donald Trump of Catholic Higher Education

As the short-lived presidency of Simon Newman comes, apparently, to an ignoble end at Mount St. Mary’s University, deeper questions remain about the focus and goals of many Catholic universities.

“You’re fired!” That was the tagline of the bombastic Donald Trump on Celebrity Apprentice. More recently, it was the short-lived leadership policy of the deservedly embattled president of Mount St. Mary’s University, the nation’s second-oldest Catholic university. Simon Newman was appointed last year and, in a remarkably short time, his leadership style, offensive language, and apparently complete ignorance of the Catholic intellectual tradition and its vision of education has catapulted the small Catholic university, in a stunning geographical setting nestled among the Catoctin Mountains, into the national spotlight.

There is a painful irony in this for a Board of Trustees that apparently thought hiring a successful private-equity chief executive and entrepreneur with no administrative experience in higher education was a means of correcting the university’s financial situation, increasing retention, and improving its national reputation. It now has a national reputation among many who previously knew little or nothing about the Mount. It is doubtful, however, that the current attention will increase the likelihood of talented academics or bright high school students coming to the university.

After numerous administrative changes, Newman fired two professors, one of whom was a tenured member of the Philosophy Department and both of whom had been critical of the president’s policies. As word spread that the faculty was preparing a no-confidence vote in the president, Newman abruptly reversed course and offered to reinstate the professors. He was doing this, he told one of the professors, “because it was the year of Mercy.” Apparently he suddenly discovered Pope Francis’ proclamation of the Year of Mercy in the few days between the time he fired and reinstated the professors.

Perhaps now, in an effort to demonstrate the depth of his compassion, he will fire and then reinstate the 87 (out of 90) faculty members who, on Friday, petitioned the Board of Trustees to remove him as president. “We have come to the sad conclusion,” the faculty stated in a letter addressed to Newman, “that this state of affairs cannot be resolved while you continue in your current office. Therefore, it is with a heavy heart, in a loving spirit of compassion and forgiveness, that we appeal to your generosity of spirit and ask that you resign your position for the good of our community by 9:00 AM on February 15, 2016.”

The penchant for curt dismissals is not the only similarity between the current front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination and the current president of the nation’s second-oldest Catholic university. What made the Mount a national story was the report of a singular and singularly abusive and fatuous quotation from Simon Newman about freshmen students at the Mount. In a meeting about retention rates, the president proposed asking just arrived freshmen to take a survey, for whose questions, the students would be told, there would be no wrong answer. Yet the answers would in fact be used to determine which students were unhappy or struggling, which would in turn lead to a frank conversation with the students and possibly a suggestion that they withdraw from the school. Of course, the most obvious problem with this strategy is that this is a crude mechanism for determining retention. Students go through bouts of depression, loneliness, and homesickness at various points in their first year and beyond.

What made it clear that the primary concern was not the students but the retention rates was Simon’s outlandish comment to those objecting to the plan. “This is hard for you because you think of the students as cuddly bunnies, but you can’t,” Mr. Newman is quoted as saying. “You just have to drown the bunnies.” He added, “Put a Glock to their heads.” This is more than an unfortunate malapropism. Anyone who thinks this way about students should have none of them under his care. This is similar to the way Trump talks about immigrants or anyone who opposes him—from political rivals to female journalists.

The baffling thing about all this is how Simon Newman was appointed in the first place. The sad fact about Boards of Trustees at many universities is that their members typically have little or no knowledge of how universities work; even fewer exhibit the curiosity to find out. They glance at this strange and complicated institution and see only waste and inefficiency. They are then tempted to think the mindset of a successful business manager is the panacea for what ails the institution. Certainly a greater spirit of shared entrepreneurship, a sense among faculty, staff, and administrators that they are building something together and need to be mindful of the most productive ways to do that, can aid institutions of higher education. But that entrepreneurial vision must, to use the language of the market, know its product and, on that basis, develop a language to articulate in a compelling manner what is distinctive about this particular college or university. The latter is especially important for private, faith-based educational institutions.

This points up another, perhaps the most instructive, echo of Trump. Like Trump, Simon Newman and the Board that appointed him, suppose that the skills of the entrepreneur are easily transferable to any and every sphere of human life. If you can run a business, so the assumption goes, then you can run an army, a nation, or a small Catholic university.

But Newman apparently has little knowledge of, or affinity for, the Catholic vision of education. In an open letter, members of the Mount St. Mary’s Advisory Board of the College of Liberal Arts, which met in October with Newman present, stated:

As members of the Advisory Board of the College of Liberal Arts we have met with President Newman on several occasions. Our last meeting took place on October 23, 2015. During President Newman’s presentation that day he exhibited contempt for the Mount’s Catholic identity and tradition and called for a radical de-emphasis of the liberal arts education for which the university has been justly noted. Surveys, he explained, indicate that terms like liberal arts and philosophy do nothing for young people and that the Catholic Church is today less influential in the lives of the young than ever before.

As Pope Francis noted in his recent encyclical, the roots of our cultural crisis can be traced to our inability to see the connections between the parts of the universe; in our loss of a vocabulary concerning the true nature of the human person and its place in the whole; in our tendency to conceive of all knowledge as merely instrumental; and in a consumerist attitude toward nature and the human body. Countering this would require that universities actually take stands on what is most worthy of study and attempt to cultivate in students a genuine love of learning for its own sake. Francis regularly contrasts a curiosity aimed at domination and control with a spirit of wonder that is silently receptive of nature and issues in gratitude toward what is revealed to us in the natural and human orders.

Francis concentrates on integrated education that inculcates habits of gratitude and wonder, precisely the habits that are at the heart of a Catholic liberal arts education. Given the richness of the Catholic intellectual tradition and its commitment to the compatibility of, and integral connection between, faith and reason, Catholic schools ought to be places where students can receive simultaneously the highest level of academic challenge and the encouragement and opportunity to develop a deep, articulate, and robust adult Catholic faith.

The success or even survival rate of a university president who has lost the confidence of more than 95 percent of the faculty is not high, as the events of the past days demonstrate. But there is still the fact that the Board once thought that appointing Simon was a wise choice. The Board is like Trump’s fan base in the electorate—a base that is frustrated by any number of things, impatient for a quick fix, and willing to hire someone who claims, on the basis of success in business, that he has the skills to fix any thing. Might we hope for more in the Board of Trustees of a Catholic university than we do in the angry and intemperate electorate than now characterizes American politics?

It is one thing for the likes of Donald Trump to dominate politics in a public culture as decadent as that of contemporary America; it is quite another for that spirit to invade higher education, particularly Catholic higher education. Does the Board’s selection of Newman represents a momentary and regrettable lapse or reveal some deeper ignorance of the distinctive gifts and peculiar needs of an American university steeped in the rich Catholic tradition of liberal education?


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About Thomas S. Hibbs 18 Articles
Thomas S. Hibbs is Dean of the Honors College at Baylor University.  His most recent book is Wagering on an Ironic God: Pascal on Faith and Philosophy.