Emails obtained by the student newspaper at Mount St. Mary's University in Maryland suggest the school's president wanted to dismiss about 20 to 25 students in the first weeks of college to improve the institution's reported retention rates.
While some faculty and administrators object to the plan, President Simon Newman and the board of trustees say it is in the students' best interests.
EAB's take: What you need to know about student retention
Newman began at the Catholic school last year, bringing with him a background in business and consulting. He announced intentions to double the university's size within the decade by adding in-demand programs and cutting ones that lacked enough student interest.
The student paper, the Mountain Echo, published an article this week on Newman's retention plan, which reportedly includes collecting survey results from all freshmen and then using those answers to dismiss a number of them by Sept. 25—the deadline for sending enrollment data to the U.S. Education Department. Under federal rules, students who left school by that date would not count as ever having enrolled, so they would not officially be considered "dropouts."
Ensuring a good fit
Newman is quoted in emails as saying, "This one thing will boost our retention 4 to 5%."
Newman faced significant pushback from faculty members and administrators after proposing the plan. When he asked a professor for a list of at-risk students, he was told there was not enough information to determine that. No students were dismissed under the plan this year.
As reported by the Mountain Echo and confirmed by associate professor John Larrivee to the Washington Post, Newman at one point said, "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."
Newman does not dispute the quote and acknowledges his language was colorful. He frames the retention program as an effort—not to push students out—but rather help identify those who may be better off at another school before they take on significant debt at Mount St. Mary's.
Tackling the challenge of persistence among Pell Grant recipients
But parts of the campus community oppose the early intervention strategy, no matter its intent.
"I could see, from a business person's perspective, some merit in helping students realize early that this is not the best place for them," Larrivee says. "But for the Mount, we care deeply about all our students and it would have to be done out of concern for them."
When is the best time to intervene?
In an email to the campus on Dec. 22, 2015, Newman said that previous retention efforts came too late for many students, six weeks into the semester. Now, administrators track student participation in campus events, classes, and meal plans to identify any who may be struggling early on. In combination with the survey results, administrators can then meet with students and "have this honest-to-God conversation" about whether they are happy at school, says Newman.
Over winter break, 23 students were dismissed because of their grades. Earlier intervention, Newman argues, would have encouraged them to find a better-fit school.
His bunny quote "wasn't intended to be anything other than, 'Some of these conversations you may need to have with people are hard,'" he adds.
And a letter to the Mountain Echo from board chair John Coyne III says the "selected quotes" from the emails in the paper's article were taken out of context and show a "grossly inaccurate impression on the subject of the Mount's efforts to improve student retention" (Jaschik, Inside Higher Ed, 1/20; Svrluga, "Grade Point," Washington Post, 1/19).
Next in Today's Briefing
Report: Two-year, four-year institution partnerships vital to transfer student success