MARYLAND — A private Catholic university has found itself in a swarm of controversy after its campus newspaper reported that the president referred to incoming freshmen as bunnies that need to be “drowned,” which has since led to the firings of the newspaper’s adviser and a tenured professor.
Last month, Mount St. Mary’s University’s student newspaper, The Mountain Echo, published a chain of emails and conversations about freshman-retention plans in a Jan. 19 article that provoked widespread outcry because of harsh language in quotes attributed to the university’s first-year president, Simon P. Newman.
On Monday, Newman fired both Ed Egan, the newspaper’s faculty adviser, and tenured Philosophy Professor Thane Naberhaus and demoted Provost David Rehem, who was openly critical of the retention plan.
The retention plan involves the use of an administration-developed survey given during freshman orientation. The introduction to the survey told students it would be a “valuable tool” to help them discover more about themselves and asked them to answer as honestly as possible. Instead of a learning tool, The Mountain Echo uncovered, the goal of the survey was to dismiss 20-25 freshmen who the administration deemed unlikely to succeed in their first year by Sept. 25, in order to boost the school’s retention by four or five percent.
A school’s retention rate — the percentage of a school’s first-time, first-year undergraduate students who continue at the school the next year — affects the school’s ranking. Mount St. Mary’s retention rate is 78 percent, 11 percent higher than the national average, according to Department of Education data.
In defense of his plan to improve this percentage, Newman was quoted as telling a faculty member, “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.”
When the plan and Newman’s comments were published by the student newspaper, Mount St. Mary’s became the center of national attention.
Egan and Naberhaus were made aware of their dismissal by letter from Newman, which asserted they had been designated “persona non grata” — Latin for “an unwelcome person” — at the university and were no longer welcome on campus or at any university activities.
Egan, also director of the university’s pre-law program, said he was called into the Vice President of Student Affair’s office three times to recount what was written in the student newspaper before being fired Monday. He said during each of the visits, he thought he would be fired, but when he wasn’t after the third time, he was relieved.
“I thought with all of this attention, surely they’re not going to fire me,” Egan said. “When I walked into the VP’s office on Monday and saw the envelope lying there, I thought ‘I guess I am getting fired.’”
Egan said after being fired, he was escorted to his office by a campus security officer and told to gather up his things and make one trip to his car. He said his office resembled a crime scene and was sealed off by yellow tape.
“I told [the security officer], ‘this is very appropriate because what happened here is a crime,’” he said.
As a Mount St. Mary’s alumnus, former assistant women’s basketball coach, and prominent member of the community, Egan said it saddens him he won’t be allowed back on campus.
His firing, he said, seems in retaliation for The Mountain Echo’s reporting. The student journalists are now reeling and temporarily suspended publication of the newspaper while they regrouped.
“We very suddenly lost our sole faculty adviser,” said Rebecca Schisler, the paper’s news editor. “Because of this, we weren’t sure how to move on.”
Schisler said the newspaper has since lifted the suspension and the staff plans to print as normal.
After issuing an apology for his comments, Newman has retained the full support of the university’s Board of Trustees.
In a letter to The Mountain Echo, John Coyne, board chairman, wrote that the article presented a “grossly inaccurate impression” of the school’s efforts to improve student retention and “intervene early on.”
Coyne said the decision of Schisler and Managing Editor Ryan Golden, the authors of the article, to use selected quotes from “confidential email exchanges” among faculty was irresponsible and in violation of the college’s Code of Conduct.
Egan said the students will not be disciplined for their reporting. Golden did not respond to the Student Press Law Center’s request for comment, and Schisler declined to comment further, saying that she didn’t want to become part of the story.
The firings have been met with deep criticism, especially from free speech and academic freedom advocates.
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education has asked its readers to join the organization in writing to Newman to demand the fired faculty members be reinstated so that “dissent and a free student press be respected on campus.”
While Mount St. Mary’s is a private institution, and therefore not a state agent legally bound to the constitutional rights of its students, it advertises itself in forceful support of free speech and academic freedom. Article V of its 2015 Code of Conduct regarding campus publications states, “Academic institutions exist for the transmission of knowledge, the pursuit of truth, the development of students, and the general well-being of society. Free inquiry and free expression are indispensable to the attainment of these goals.”
The code goes on to encourage students to act or speak freely, and promises Mount St. Mary’s will protect that right, so long as the speech is truthful.
“Mount St. Mary’s went nuclear,” FIRE Director Peter Bonilla said in a statement. “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.”
By Wednesday morning, nearly 5,000 scholars, academics and administrators had signed a statement of protest regarding the firings. The petition called for both faculty members to be reinstated immediately, and for the administration to be “held accountable” for the violations of the free speech rights of its academic community.
Newman could not be immediately reached for comment on the firings or accusations of free speech violations.
Egan said it is hard for him to think his dismissal is anything but a suppression of speech on campus. He said once he became the newspaper’s adviser last spring, the students rose to the challenge of writing about issues that matter to the community.
He said the student reporters once wrote about a racial problem on campus that portrayed some of Mount St. Mary’s students in a bad light, but the newspaper received no push back by administrators.
“Perhaps it is okay to point the finger at students when they do something wrong, but not anyone in a position of power,” he said.
In an email sent to the student body, administrators announced that the new advisers of the Mountain Echo are an assistant professor of communication and the executive editor of the Emmitsburg News-Journal.
“We intend for the new advisory team to provide the Echo’s editorial and reporting staff with the expert guidance necessary to enable it to gain a deeper understanding of best practices in news gathering and reporting in addition to a fuller picture of the media business itself,” the email said. “We hope to make additional enhancements to the Echo and the experience of working at the Echo in the future, based on the recommendations of the new advisory team working in concert with Echo staffers, as well as input from SGA and other campus stakeholders.”
Egan said while he respects his replacements, he is worried the students will begin to self-censor The Mountain Echo because of what happened “to the last untenured adviser to the paper.”
While Egan said he hasn’t given much thought to pursuing legal action against the school, he is not ruling it out. He said he evolved from the adviser for the newspaper to its “protector,” and does not appreciate the way the students are being treated for investigating the administration and reporting the truth.
“The Echo students and I love Mount St. Mary’s,” Egan said. “But sometimes love requires a person to say difficult truths to people.”
SPLC staff writer Kaitlin DeWulf can be reached by email or at (202) 974-6317.
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