If You Value Academic Freedom, Consider Signing This Petition

I’m not much of a petition-signer. But today I added my name to this petition, and I hope that those of you who consider yourself part of what the author calls “the community of scholars” will consider doing likewise.

Simon NewmanIt’s a response to the recent behavior of Simon Newman, president of Mount St. Mary’s University in Emmitsburg, Maryland. Newman came to national attention last month when the school’s student newspaper, in possession of leaked memos and emails, reported that he planned to improve the school’s retention rate by identifying at-risk students and encouraging them to drop out early in the academic year, before they would be counted in numbers reported to the U.S. Department of Education. While the plan itself drew opposition from faculty and administrators, Newman’s, um, colorful way of speaking made things worse. Reportedly, he told faculty members that “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.”

Despite widespread criticism, Newman apparently intends to move forward with the controversial plan and has received the backing of his board. Indeed, its chairperson, John Coyne, stated last month in an online letter that the most “deeply troubling” result of the board’s investigation was not the president’s comments about at-risk students, but that they found

incontrovertible evidence of the existence of an organized, small group of faculty and recent alums working to undermine and ultimately cause the exit of President Newman. This group’s issues are born out of a real resistance to positive change at Mount St. Mary’s… the university will hold those individuals accountable for these actions.

On Friday Newman dismissed provost David Rehm, who had apparently opposed the retention plan, and yesterday he fired two professors. One of the dismissed professors was the adviser to the student newspaper that initially reported the retention plan. The other was a tenured philosopher who received this explanation in a letter from Newman:

As an employee of Mount St. Mary’s University, you owe a duty of loyalty to this university and to act in a manner consistent with that duty. However, your recent actions, in my opinion and that of others, have violated that duty and clearly justify your termination.

The Chronicle of Higher Education reported that the history professor who told the student newspaper about the “bunnies” comment “may also face termination.” (Former provost Rehm will retain his faculty status as a philosopher professor.)

Bradley Hall, Mount St. Mary's University
Bradley Hall at Mount St. Mary’s University – Wikimedia

Disturbing as this story is, my first reaction to it was to thank God for my own institution’s leadership. Not that it’s infallible. Indeed, just last week I openly criticized one of its recent decisions on our faculty listserv. But I did so without any real fear that I would find myself targeted as a disloyal malcontent. At worst, I expected to be ignored, corrected, or to have my opinion registered but outweighed by other considerations. Dismissal never even occurred to me as a possible outcome.

Nor, before the last few days, did it probably occur to people at Mount St. Mary’s. Hence today’s petition, which protested the professors’ dismissals in part on the evident lack of due process, expected of all institutions of higher learning. The petition states that “the manner and circumstance of their dismissal raises serious questions about the respect given to moral conscience and intellectual freedom at Mount St. Mary’s.” Respect for those values is so fundamental to what we do in higher education — and so often imperiled, at this time and for decades before it — that I think this is an important moment for academics far beyond Emmitsburg, MD.

It’s especially salient for those of us who work at Christian and church-related colleges and universities. Notably, the Mount St. Mary’s petition places the values of “moral conscience and intellectual freedom” in the context of the school’s religious identity:

As a Catholic institution, Mount St. Mary’s is bound by the teachings that “charity always proceeds by way of respect for one’s neighbor and his conscience” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, par. 1789), and that in the context of the Catholic university “the freedom of conscience of each person is to be fully respected” (Ex Corde Ecclesiae, II.2.iv). As a university, it is bound by the standards that govern any such institution in respect of its faculty.

Five times in his letter, Coyne alluded to the Catholic mission, values, and identity of Mount St. Mary’s. So I trust that he takes seriously Pope John Paul II’s 1990 apostolic constitution on Catholic universities. But I’m not sure he understands how his school’s “Catholic values” have now been placed at risk.

Earlier in Ex Corde Ecclesia, John Paul II called it “the honour and responsibility of a Catholic University to consecrate itself without reserve to the cause of truth.” I think this is the honor and responsibility of Christian universities more generally, and our mutual commitment to this cause requires that all such institutions preserve significant freedom for those whose calling dedicates them “to the research of all aspects of truth in their essential connection with the supreme Truth, who is God.”

This freedom is not unlimited. But a leader’s thin skin is not one such boundary. And an institution consecrated “without reserve to the cause of truth” cannot preserve itself from questioning and criticism. When it does — and particularly in what seems like such a capricious fashion — it risks the entire enterprise.

Consider the climate that Inside Higher Education reporter Scott Jaschik discovered at Mount St. Mary’s in the wake of the recent purge:

Faculty members reached on campus Monday were nervous about talking, given that their colleagues were being fired and that the administration has told them to consult with the public relations department before talking to reporters. But, speaking anonymously, professors said some faculty and support staff members were crying in various offices. With the firing of the provost and two faculty members — all of whom had disagreed with the president — people said they were scared.

“It’s terrifying, and nobody is safe,” said one faculty member. “It is shattering. It feels like the end of what so many of us have sacrificed for.”

I can see why. If “loyalty” to the institution as defined by an offended president is allowed to bound academic freedom, then I’m not sure how any faculty member can truly feel free to ask hard questions or propose unpopular answers in any realm. The cause of seeking “all aspects of truth” should be done, wrote John Paul II, “without fear but rather with enthusiasm….”

If you agree, and if you find the situation being reported at Mount St. Mary’s to be as concerning as I do, then please join me (and over three thousand others, so far) in signing the petition.


2 thoughts on “If You Value Academic Freedom, Consider Signing This Petition

  1. Wow – it’s hard to believe the comments by the president. I know that’s not your point here – but I can’t help but express some shock. I find it interesting, again, the two tiers or three tiers here: admin, faculty, students. Some tiers are addressed, others are not. As though one can impact one and not all.

    I’m not sure on the history of relations between admin, faculty and the students and their student newspaper. But I might have faced something similar in a Christian nonprofit I worked for. As the writer and publisher of a “commoner” newsletter for wide distribution, I had superiors “leak” information to me that I could then work into the newsletter. This was at times fun and thrilling. And it did some good. However…looking back on it, I feel this sense of being used by superiors who had the authority and power and hopefully maturity to have taken their information and addressed the same matters more directly to their peers. I am just wondering if the students here were “used” in what’s an awful, revealing situation?

    I also come from a situation in which people were afraid of losing their jobs. At the end of the day, however, I hope that people will fear more for those who suffer the most from a system like this…most likely the least empowered – the students…than for themselves. Is it too brash or insensitive for me to say that these folks could get another “job” at another institution, whereas the students who face “the glock” are challenged with re-entering a learning institution at all, again, and will face economic and other consequences much more profound?

    I think the best thing that can happen to Christian institutions of any kind is when those in positions of power do not fear losing that power but act boldly and in good conscience. In 1 Corinthians the Apostle Paul talks about the Body of Christ being arranged ideally so that the people in power or visibility put more care to those without power and visibility…and that creates the best harmony.

    All that said, I do feel for anyone who feels trapped in a Christian institution (especially one that espouses valuing truth!) and is afraid for their lives and livelihood.

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