Dear Commons Community,
Earlier this week, Simon Newman resigned as president of Mt. St. Mary’s College in Maryland. This ended a failed attempt by the College to bring in a president with no higher education experience but lots of business acumen. As reported in The Chronicle of Higher Education:
“With his resignation as president of Mount St. Mary’s University of Maryland, Simon P. Newman closed out a tenure that had become synonymous with an emerging brand of corporate-style college leadership.
Mr. Newman’s presidency reads as a failed experiment. Before he was hired, in late 2014, Mr. Newman had no experience in higher-education administration. But his background as a financier made Mr. Newman a plausible candidate to reinvigorate a small, tuition-dependent Roman Catholic college struggling to stay relevant in a crowded marketplace.
It didn’t work.
At a time when a good number of university trustees are looking for nontraditional leaders to shake things up, Mr. Newman’s turbulent ride at Mount St. Mary’s may well serve as a cautionary tale. For all of the fresh thinking and clear-eyed business sense that he brought to the job, professors say that Mr. Newman simply failed to appreciate the profound cultural divide between Wall Street and academe.
It was Mr. Newman’s blunt style, which played just fine in the high-octane investment world, that brought his university presidency to a point of crisis several weeks ago. Describing a novel retention plan that would encourage struggling students to drop out before they could be counted as failures under federal rules for measuring graduation rates, Mr. Newman purportedly used a graphic analogy that would come to define him.
“This is hard for you because you think of the students as cuddly bunnies, but you can’t,” Mr. Newman is alleged to have told a professor. “You just have to drown the bunnies … put a Glock to their heads.”
Colorful language aside, Mr. Newman has said he merely wanted to give students a chance to get their money back if they were unlikely to finish.
The comments shocked many, but such talk would not have been out of place in Mr. Newman’s former life. And a fuller look at his corporate background shows that he was probably a poor fit from the start for the church-affiliated liberal-arts college.
An expatriate from England, Mr. Newman settled in Los Angeles in the 1990s and became a player in private equity. In that high-risk realm of investing, managers like Mr. Newman arrange buyouts of companies and try to make them more profitable, sometimes by laying off people and cutting benefits. At Mount St. Mary’s, Mr. Newman employed the same tactics.”
The hiring of corporate leaders as presidents is a trend to watch. Similar appointments have recently been made at Bowdoin College, Muhlenberg College, and the University of Iowa. We need to see how these appointments play out.