Faculty, experts call Mount St. Mary's survey unethical

'This kind of approach is antithetical to the purpose of higher education'

The survey central to recent disturbances at Mount St. Mary's University began circulating last week, resulting in public criticism of the ethics. 

Background

Last month, the student newspaper, the Mountain Echo, published an article that suggested President Simon Newman wanted to use results from a new freshman survey to dismiss about 20 to 25 students in the first weeks of college with the goal of improving the institution's reported retention rates.

Newman, who came to the school from a business background last year, is quoted in emails as writing, "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.

After the story went public, the paper advisor professor Ed Egan and tenured associate professor Thane Naberhaus were fired. Additionally, Newman requested and received professor David Rehm's resignation from provost. The three opposed the plan.

Newman frames the retention program as an effort—not to push students out—but rather to help identify those who may be better off at another school before they take on significant debt at Mount St. Mary's.

The survey

The survey itself assures freshmen there "are no wrong answers" and would be used to help students best use their time at college. It does not mention the retention aspect.

Topics include: potential new programs, what it takes to be successful, and how prepared students feel for class. 

How to prepare for a social media mess

However, there are also sections on mental health, financial stability, and disabilities. Respondents are required to include their six-digit student identification number, meaning answers were not anonymous.

Faculty members spoke with Inside Higher Ed on condition of anonymity and called the questions themselves fine, but the questions paired with the intent to cut students from the freshmen class unethical.

NASPA President Kevin Kruger echoed that sentiment. First, the survey should not have directly linked mental health answers with student IDs, he told Inside Higher Ed. "I would expect, at the very least, that a survey of this nature would be confidential—meaning that the individual responses could be connected to an individual, but that connection would not be readily available." 

"Related to this concern is what might be inferred as the background purpose of the survey—to determine which students are more likely to struggle academically and psychologically and then encourage these students to withdraw," he says. "This kind of approach is antithetical to the purpose of higher education" (Jaschik, Inside Higher Ed, 2/12). 


Infographic

The "Murky Middle"

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