Mount St. Mary’s University reinstates fired student newspaper adviser

Updated, 2/12, 6:30 pm, with Egan’s comments and news of the faculty members’ demand for President Simon Newman’s resignation. 

Just days after the student newspaper adviser and a tenured professor at Mount St. Mary’s University were fired, the university president announced he would reinstate the two employees, effective immediately.

Ed Egan, the Mountain Echo’s faculty adviser, and tenured Philosophy Professor Thane Naberhaus were fired on Monday, after the Catholic university in Maryland became the brunt of national outcry when controversial comments by first-year president Simon P. Newman were published by the student newspaper.

In January, the Mountain Echo published emails and conversations about Newman’s freshman-retention plan, which involves administering a survey to students at freshman orientation that was marketed as a learning tool but was actually meant to dismiss 20-25 freshmen who the administration deemed unlikely to succeed in their first year. The plan was an effort to improve the university’s retention rate.

“You think of the students as cuddly bunnies, but you can’t,” Newman was quoted as saying about the plan. “You just have to drown the bunnies … put a Glock to their head.”

Egan, a Mount St. Mary’s alumnus, has said he believes he was fired in retaliation for the newspaper’s reporting. In an interview Friday, he said he received a phone call from Newman this afternoon, in which Newman told Egan that he was being reinstated because it is the Year of Mercy. 

Egan said he told Newman he would have to think about it, and he went to the faculty meeting to announce that he had not made a decision.  

“I said that President Newman should show mercy on Mount St. Mary’s and step down,” he said. 

Egan said he is still considering his option and has not yet made a decision about his return to the  school. Whether Newman resigns, he said, is “part of my consideration.”

Newman had announced at a faculty meeting on Friday that the reinstatement would be “a first step of reconciliation and healing in the Season of Lent and the Year of Mercy.”

“We will work to implement the initiatives we agree are important for our students’ future and our university’s future. And most importantly eliminate the feelings of fear and injustice that any may be harboring, work through our misunderstandings, and make a new beginning as a unified team,” Newman said. “You have my solemn commitment to work together to restore our relationship and our school.”

Egan said he told faculty members that there were more serious problems at Mount St. Mary’s than can be solved with the reinstatement of the two employees.

In the last few days, Inside Higher Ed has reported that the freshman orientation survey at the crux of this debate could possibly have some legal issues — experts said it was unethical if not illegal to ask students about their mental health or financial challenges without disclosing that their answers might determine their fate at the university. Also, Inside Higher Ed reported that the university’s accreditor is “concerned” about the developments at Mount St. Mary’s and will be investigating the situation. 

On Friday, Inside Higher Ed reached Naberhaus, the tenured professor, and asked him if he was planning to take his job back. “Hell no,” Naberhaus responded.

The firings generated a firestorm of criticism from free speech and academic freedom advocates. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, for instance, condemned the firings in a statement and invited its readers to bombard Newman’s email inbox with demands that Egan and Naberhaus be reinstated so that “dissent and a free student press be respected on campus.”

Now, the overwhelming majority of faculty members have voted to demand Newman resign as president. An open letter stated that the vote was 87 to 3. 

“Our community is suffering,” the letter reads. “In recent weeks, we have been divided due to miscommunications, missteps, and misunderstandings. It is clear that we all could have done things differently to avoid the situation that we now find ourselves in. … We have come to the sad conclusion that this state of affairs cannot be resolved while you continue in your current office.” 

Still, Mount St. Mary’s board member Rev. Kevin Farmer said at the faculty meeting that the board continues to support Newman.

“We embrace his vision for the future of the university and believe he is the best person to carry it out,” Farmer said. “We have every desire to resolve the tension on campus and move forward together.”