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A Year After Controversy Toppled Its Divisive President, Mount St. Mary’s Forges Ahead

The Chronicle of Higher Education

May 12, 2017


Behind Timothy E. Trainor’s desk here is a small white placard bearing the Mount St. Mary’s University logo and a simple phrase: "Forward! Together as one."

It’s the name of the Maryland university’s forthcoming fund raising and marketing campaign, the interim president says. It’s also been a mantra for administrators, faculty members, students, and alumni at this Roman Catholic college since the spring 2016 semester, when the previous president, Simon P. Newman, thrust the institution into a national spotlight for all the wrong reasons.

You know the history: Mr. Newman, who came from the finance world, had a plan to cull 20 to 25 low-achieving freshmen early in the fall semester in an attempt to bolster the university’s official retention numbers. The Mountain Echo, the campus newspaper, quoted the president as telling a faculty member: "You just have to drown the bunnies … put a Glock to their heads."

He later abruptly fired two faculty members and demoted the provost.

Outrage spread, and Mr. Newman reinstated the professors, but he would not outlast the controversy that engulfed his presidency. He resigned at the end of February 2016, little more than a month after his first comments came to light.

Now that a full academic year has passed, people on this tight-knit campus would like to think of Mr. Newman as a brief blip on the 209-year-old university’s radar.

Mr. Trainor, a retired brigadier general in the U.S. Army and formerly dean and chief academic officer of the U.S. Military Academy, in West Point, N.Y., is widely praised for bringing stability and strong leadership to the institution at a critical time. Faculty members say they don’t often talk about the former president. If students mention Mr. Newman, said Sydney Johnson, a sophomore, "it’s more of a joke than anything."

Freshman enrollment for this coming fall has recovered after a steep decline in 2016. Retention of first-year students from the first to second semester — one of the issues that sparked Mr. Newman’s bunnies comment — was 94 percent this academic year, 10 points higher than just two years ago, according to the university.

There’s no doubt that Mr. Newman left a mark on this campus. (Attempts to reach Mr. Newman were not successful.) But Mount St. Mary’s has done its best to make the bunnies and the Glocks a distant memory.