(Note: the dual titles for this post are in homage to the old “Rocky and Bullwinkle” cartoons, which for each episode had two titles, including one with a bad pun)
One of my basketball players recently received his first Division One scholarship offer. The offer came from Mount St. Mary’s University in Emmitsburg, Maryland, one of the nation’s oldest Roman Catholic colleges.
Mount St. Mary’s, better known as “The Mount,” is a place I know pretty well. It is located between Gettysburg and Camp David, and in the early 1800’s Elizabeth Seton, who eventually became the first American saint, lived for a while on the Mount St. Mary’s campus. In the 1970’s I used to drive past Mount St. Mary’s on my way from my home in upstate New York to college in Virginia, and after her canonization I wrote a poem about her titled “U.S. 15” that included an image of a Lincoln (the luxury car now promoted by Matthew McConaughey, not the President) looking for a Gettysburg address. It might have been the best poem I ever wrote, which may explain why my career as a poet ended shortly thereafter.
I know Mount St. Mary’s primarily through its basketball team. Back in the 1960’s and 1970’s “The Mount” and my alma mater, Randolph-Macon, were bitter Division Two rivals in the old Mason-Dixon Conference until they parted ways, with the Mount moving up to D1 and R-MC dropping back to D3. The face of the Mount was legendary bow-tied coach Jim Phelan, who won more than 800 games in a 49-year career as the school’s head coach, including a national small-college championship.
In recent weeks Mount St. Mary’s has received national attention for a different reason. In January the student newspaper at the Mount published a story including confidential e-mails from President Simon Newman detailing a plan to boost the school’s retention rate 4-5% by forcing 25 at-risk freshmen to drop out by September 25 (students who leave by that date are not included in the enrollment data required by the U.S. Department of Education). The article quoted a faculty member (also quoted by the Washington Post) reporting that President Newman had said that faculty needed to stop thinking of students as cuddly bunnies and recognize that it was necessary to “drown the bunnies.”
That alone is enough to disprove the old adage that any publicity is good publicity, but as they say in commercials for products like ShamWow!, wait, there’s more. In the wake of the article, President Newman demoted the provost and fired two professors, one of them the newspaper advisor and the other tenured (they have since been reinstated). He also criticized the student journalists involved for publishing confidential e-mails and interpreting them out of context.
We have become used to colleges playing admissions games in order to enhance metrics such as yield and admit rate, but this is the first time I’ve heard of a similar game tied to retention. I’m also guessing that Mount St. Mary’s is not the first institution to go this route.
There is much about the Mount St. Mary’s story that is troubling, ranging from being more concerned about rankings than serving students to the use of a confidential survey to identify candidates for removal to punishing those who objected to the plan. The focus of this blog, however, is Ethical College Admissions, not Ethical College Retention. Are there ethical issues related to admission arising out of the Mount St. Mary’s saga?
Of course there are. Clearly counseling out 25 freshmen to drop out before the end of the first month of school solely in order to improve the retention rate is indefensible, but the bigger issue is whether those students should have been admitted in the first place.
An offer of admission implies a moral commitment on the part of the institution. In loco parentis is no longer in vogue in higher education, but offering a student a place in a student body imposes a duty to the institution to provide an atmosphere in which the student has a sincere and genuine opportunity to grow both academically and personally. It is not the institution’s obligation to guarantee the student’s success but it is required to make a good-faith effort. That requires treating the student as a human being worthy of dignity and respect, exhibiting what the theologian Martin Buber referred to as an “I-thou” relationship.
That can be challenging at an institution where the budget is driven primarily by tuition revenue. At such places meeting enrollment goals can be a matter of institutional health or even life and death. It is clearly unethical to admit a student who has no chance of success, but what if there is some chance? In my previous job I worked as Admissions Director at an independent school that was struggling. On my first day I counseled a student interested in transferring to stay at his current school because I wasn’t sure he could pass math in our program, and my secretary informed me that the school had never before discouraged a prospective student. I had to admit a certain number of risks each year, and I knew some would work out and some not, but I didn’t know which students would fall into which group. (I also learned that those students about whom I had behavior concerns would inevitably be hanging out with each other an hour after school began, but that’s a story for a different time.)
Even if a student looks unlikely to succeed and graduate, the first month of the school year, and especially the freshman year, is too early to determine that. College is a developmental process, a transition from adolescence to adulthood, and each student’s journey is different, with the light going on at different times in a student’s college career.
Counseling students properly is part of an institution’s responsibility to the students who enroll and the families who invest both financially and emotionally in the institution’s program and mission, and that may include counseling out. That’s not what happened here. In pursuit of short-term goals to improve retention and thereby rankings, President Newman lost sight of the bigger picture and potentially has done long-term damage to a good place. Want to improve retention? The better and more ethical plan would be to do a better job of helping the students already enrolled succeed and graduate.