To the typical wandering traveler, cruising up or down U.S. Route 15, the little town of Emmitsburg does not appear to be a major attraction. While the town’s tourism landmarks—such as the stately National Shrine of Elizabeth Ann Seton and the picturesque Grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes—do draw a crowd, Emmitsburg itself can easily be overlooked on maps and guides dominated by more popular destinations in cities like Gettysburg or Frederick. To an unknowing tourist, the little town of Emmitsburg appears to be just that—a little town.
However, looks can be deceiving. Beneath the quaint, small-town look and feel of Emmitsburg is a tightly knit community of friends and neighbors, many of whom have lived in the area for their entire lives. It is the strength of this community that gives the town of Emmitsburg a uniquely vibrant character.
While the quality of the community has always been the primary motivating factor for Emmitsburg’s prosperity, the strength and unity of that community has been challenged over the past few months by an unexpected controversy, which arose from Emmitsburg’s own Mount St. Mary’s University.
In the early autumn of 2015, disagreements between the university’s administration and its faculty reached a breaking point, with the then-president Simon Newman pioneering for changes that many at the university believed to be unethical. When the arguments boiled over into the community, many local faculty members, staff members, students, and alumni picked a side in the increasingly vociferous debate. The debacle at Mount St. Mary’s gained national attention from such sources as The Washington Post and several scholarly societies from across the country.
The resignation of university president Simon Newman, whose policies were at the center of the dispute, indicates that the school desires to move past the controversy; however, the decision has come too late for many members of the Emmitsburg community. Lack of straightforward communication from the university, coupled with sensationalized reports in local and national media, have left the community of Emmitsburg with few facts and many wounds.
We, at The Catoctin Banner, hope that the information that follows helps to resolve many of the questions that may remain regarding the whirlwind of allegations and accusations that have poured out of Mount St. Mary’s University over the past few months. It must be noted that The Catoctin Banner does not support any involved party other than the community as a whole; our efforts to present what transpired at Mount St. Mary’s University are not intended to harm, but to encourage healing among the embittered parties for the good of the community.
What follows is a documented account of the events that transpired at Mount St. Mary’s University over the past few months.
In the fall of 2014, the Mount St. Mary’s University met with three candidates for the university presidency, which was set to be vacated by Thomas Powell after eleven years of service. Upon reviewing the candidates, the university’s Board of Trustees selected Simon Newman as the 25th president. Trustee member and Mount alumnus Francis W. Daily said that Newman was selected primarily for his financial experience, although communication skills and Catholic identity also played a part in the hiring.
At the time, Mount St. Mary’s was dealing with considerable debts; Newman’s financial expertise was a necessity for the struggling university. A fifty-one-year-old from the United Kingdom, Newman held almost thirty years of experience in the financial sector, specifically in private equity, strategy consulting, and financial operations. During that time, he led several businesses from the brink of bankruptcy, coordinating for more than $200 million in profit improvement.
Newman took charge of the university on March 10, 2015, five months earlier than expected. In an editorial piece, the editing staff of the Mountain Echo student newspaper welcomed Newman to his new position. While the authors of the article cited that Newman would have “his work cut out for him” in improving and increasing the campus’ living spaces and other facilities, they also affirmed that there was “utmost faith” in his ability to “guide the university through these times of concern.”
Newman’s program for improving the university, deemed Mount 2.0, outlined several key changes in the university’s programs and functions. Newman, with the support of the Board of Trustees, implemented several changes to the university’s academic development and marketing. Among other major changes were a re-evaluation of the core curriculum and the addition of two new financial programs: Enterprise Resource Planning and Customer Relationship Management.
While Newman’s financial decisions were originally lauded by the majority of those at the university, he came under fire for one particular decision in October 2015. On October 29, 2015, Mount St. Mary’s administration notified its employees of the elimination of the university’s long-held retiree health care benefits. Prior to this announcement, retired employees of the university that had served before 1996 were allowed to remain on the university’s health care plan. After Newman’s adjustments, these employees were removed from the program, as well as spouses of current employees. Retirement fund benefits for current employees were also cut in half.
While many retired and current employees of the university acknowledged that these benefits could not be funded forever, they criticized the way that Newman and the university administration went about implementing the changes. In a letter from three retired professors addressed to members of the university community, it was stated that the retired professors were “shocked” by the “very abrupt termination of the retiree health benefit.” The letter also stated that Newman implemented the changes behind the backs of many of the retirees.
“We were also shocked by the way we were informed—by receiving a letter in the mail or an email, and in some cases, not being informed at all,” the letter read.
While the administration assured that the benefit cuts were necessary for the continued operation of the university, members of the university community began to distrust Newman’s methods. This distrust reached its climax on January 19, 2016, when the Mountain Echo reported that Newman’s newly-created student retention plan was engineered to ensure the dismissal of twenty to twenty-five of the university’s worst-performing students. Additionally, the article referenced a conversation between Newman and Professor Greg Murray, where Newman allegedly referred to poorly-performing students as “bunnies” that needed to be drowned or have a “Glock to their heads.”
The university’s administration responded swiftly to the article, condemning it as “grossly inaccurate.” A subsequent statement from John E. Coyne, the chairman of the Board of Trustees, confirmed that Newman used the “inappropriate metaphor” but denied that Newman’s new retention program targeted unintelligent students for dismissal. Coyne’s statement blamed the misinformation on an “organized, small group of faculty and recent alums working to undermine and ultimately cause the exit of President Newman.”
Opponents of Newman and the administration were further inflamed in February, when Newman ordered the termination of two university faculty members, one of which was tenured. Professors Thane Naberhaus and Edward Egan were escorted off campus by security, and their university equipment was seized. Newman himself did not address the men about their termination, but rather had letters delivered to the professors, stating that their termination was due to unspecified violations of university policy.
The majority of the faculty members believed that the terminations were retaliatory, as both men had objected to Newman’s policy changes. While the university offered later that same week to reinstate both professors, the damage had already been done. Articles about the university’s termination of the professors—one of whom still had tenure—were published in several local newspapers, as well as The Washington Post. Letters to the editor of the Mountain Echo poured in from current and past members of the university community; some stood with the faculty while others sided with Newman.
In light of the national publicity, the university faculty members voted overwhelmingly in favor of asking for Newman’s resignation. Despite the 87-3 vote, Newman insisted that he had no intention to resign.
On February 29, 2016, Newman did step down from the presidency. The Board of Trustees appointed Karl Einoff as the acting president.