Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Mount St. Mary's President Likens At-Risk Students to Bunnies Who Should Be Drowned--then Fires His Critics

Yes, that's right. Simon Newman--the president of Mount St. Mary's hired last year from the business world and obviously ignorant of the values that define a Roman Catholic institution of higher education--has turned a policy stumble into a PR disaster by, first, defending his policies in the most offensive way imaginable and then firing his critics (or, as his most vocal defender on the board of trustees would have it, firing the key members of the secret conspiracy determined to bring him down). The details of the case are well-described here, here, here, here, and here.

I don't know Simon Newman. He might be a thoughtful, decent guy most of the time. But he has displayed a pattern of behavior in recent months that has risen from the controversial into the stratosphere of egregiously unjust.

Let's walk through the escalating stages of outrageousness together.

Stage One: A Dubious Policy

It started with a controversial policy proposal pertaining to student retention. Usually, when you think about student retention policies, you think about strategies for helping to keep students from failing out or dropping out. You don't usually imagine issuing a questionnaire to incoming freshmen whose aim is to identify new students at-risk for dropping out so that the university can encourage them to withdraw from the university before their departure would count as dropping out from the standpoint of retention statistics.

There are reasons why you don't usually think about the latter. If there's something you can do to determine whether a brand-new freshman is unlikely to succeed at your college--something you can learn before their first semester is even underway--then presumably you could have figured that out before you admitted them in the first place. And surely it's better not to admit them than to admit them, let them get registered for courses and moved into their dorm and excited about the new stage in their life...and then encourage them to quit and go home before they've even unpacked all their bags.

Of course, a policy aimed at identifying at-risk students for the sake of providing them with what they need in order to succeed would be a different matter. And if, as a side-effect of such a policy, one (rarely) encountered a student who should never have been admitted but somehow slipped through the cracks in the admissions process, there might be some reason to think it compassionate to encourage such a student to withdraw with a full tuition refund before "wasting" their time and money only to drop out later. Of course, even then you might argue that once you've admitted them, they should be afforded every chance to succeed.

Now it sounds as if the policy that Newman proposed might have been a little bit of both. Part of the purpose of identifying at-risk students might have been to provide resources for their success, but part would be to identify those whom the university would encouraged to quit before they've even had a chance to try--so that their failure wouldn't negatively impact the university's retention statistics. Newman even conceded that some students who might have been successful could get dismissed--which he called "collateral damage," apparently justified because getting "20-25 people to leave by the 25th" of September would "boost our retention 4-5%." (Quotes are from e-mails and witness accounts acquired by Mount St. Mary's student newspaper, The Mountain View, and reported there).

If the retention policy was both about providing support and drumming out students for the sake of massaging retention statistics, the criticisms from within Mount St. Mary's were focused on the latter.

And there is plenty of good reason for faculty and administrators (and students and alumni and other interested parties) to be critical of the latter. Or maybe I should say there are plenty of staggeringly powerful reasons to be appalled by the latter--especially when the method of identifying at-risk students is a student questionnaire misleadingly presented to incoming freshmen as an opportunity for deeper self-awareness for which there are no wrong answers.

We might put it this way: A Roman Catholic institution of higher learning is defined by both the values of the academy (such as academic freedom and integrity and a priority on expanding wisdom and knowledge) and by Catholic values (such as social justice, charity, and the promotion of human flourishing). For several years while I was finishing my PhD, I taught multiple courses each semester at a Roman Catholic college. While an adjunct faculty member there, I participated in a program designed to promote the success of students admitted probationally. I was the advisor for several of these students and taught a course for them aimed at promoting success. And I was active with various other aspects of the life of the college that gave me a sense of what values drove that institution.

Massaging numbers to make retention rates look better is not a value of a Roman Catholic institution. It is fundamentally a business value--where numbers and appearances often take precedence over substantive contributions to wisdom and the human good.

So what are some values that help define a Roman Catholic institution of higher learning? Here's one: Ensuring that a student is not admitted in the first place unless the university will in good faith offer them every opportunity to succeed. That's a matter of justice, and such matters of justice resonate deeply with Roman Catholic values. And what about students who have been judged capable of success in the admission process but whom the university soon identifies as confronted with personal challenges that might interfere with actualizing that potential (such things as depression, which the proposed freshman questionnaire would have tested for)? Roman Catholic values would speak in favor of support and hope and nurture, of responsibility for caring about the welfare and success of those with whom one has established a relationship and made an initial commitment. It would certainly not speak in favor of preemptively cutting depressed students loose in order to massage retention statistics and make the university look better on paper.

Given Newman's background, I suppose it is no surprise that he might be motivated by considerations that don't reflect the value priorities of an institution such as Mount St. Mary's. The test of someone's character and fit with an institution comes not with such early missteps, but with what happens afterwards. Does the leader listen to concerns, take seriously criticism that springs from sincere devotion to institutional values, and either change course or make their case in terms of a better understanding of and respect for those values?

It's possible that not every aspect of President Newman's retention policy clashed with the values that define an institution like Mount St. Mary's. But it is obvious that part of the aim was to drum out new freshman right away, prior to giving them a meaningful opportunity to succeed or fail on their own. And it's obvious that this part of the plan was important to Newman. Thus, there is no doubt at all that critics of the policy were targeting something that really was a part of President Newman's aims, and that really was problematic from the traditional institutional values at issue. Newman's critics weren't attacking a straw man.

Why do I say that this is so obvious? There are actually a number of reasons, but one of the most significant is how President Newman defended his policy proposal. And that leads me to stage two of the escalating egregiousness.

Stage Two: Drown the Bunnies

In response to faculty criticism of his policy proposal, Simon Newman displayed a tin ear to the values that define an institution like Mount St. Mary's. As reported by the student newspaper, the Mountain Echo, Newman invoked violent metaphors: “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.”

This language is not only rhetorically out of tune with Roman Catholic values, but betrays a way of understanding the policy proposals at issue that is not primarily about identifying at-risk students for the sake of nurture and support but, rather, of identifying them for the sake of drowning them. The rhetoric betrays a motivation for the policy proposals that exposes a fault-line between the president's business-minded approach and the value system that makes Catholic universities distinctive and important in the academic landscape and in society.

Let me be clear here: President Newman described his remarks as unfortunate rhetoric, and apologized for the choice of words. But this is not simply a word-choice issue. The choice to invoke violent metaphors to defend his policy proposal says something about how President Newman understands that policy and its aims. The metaphors that spring immediately to your lips when describing a policy you support spring to your lips for a reason. They express your attitude and understanding. The violent rhetoric is not only problematic because it is violent, because it invokes the unsavory images of putting guns to the heads of college students and drowning them like unwanted bunny rabbits. The violent rhetoric tells us that President Newman sees his policy as aiming at eliminating unwanted students the way a ruthless person might drown unwanted bunnies.

This is simply not the sort of imagery that springs into the mind of someone who is deeply invested in the values of Roman Catholic higher education. People who really care about those values don't think of at-risk students as bunnies to be drowned. They're more likely to think of them, well, as bunnies to be nurtured. President Newman was telling the faculty to stop embracing those values. He was telling them that they "can't" approach students in that nurturing way, that a kind of heartlessness is required.

Required for what? For making Mount St. Mary's operate in accord with Newman's heartless business model? Obviously, faculty at Mount St. Mary's can view their students in the nurturing way that Newman derides. And if those faculty believe in what Roman Catholic higher education is about, they not only can but should.

Those who advise against compassion and nurture often hide behind the language of necessity--we must do this, we can't do that--as a way to deflect moral objections to their hard-hearted proposals. But there is no necessity here. It is absolutely possible for a Roman Catholic university to be guided by Roman Catholic values.

In defending his policy proposal as he did, Newman not only made clear the true spirit of the policy, but he also made clear just how alienated he is from the defining spirit of Mount St. Mary's identity as a Roman Catholic University. When there was a clash between his policy proposals and the values of Mount St. Mary's, instead of listening to concerns openly and responsively, he sought to impose his will with the language of necessity and the rhetoric of violence. He responded to a gap between his value system and the values of the institution he'd been entrusted to lead by expressing disdain for the latter.

In short, he made it clear that he was not a good fit for the leadership position that he held, not merely because of a disconnect between his values and those of the university, but more profoundly because of his unwillingness to be moved and shaped by the university's historic values.

This unwillingness then escalated, in stage three, into behavior characteristic of a tyrant. Or maybe Donald Trump.

Stage Three: "You're Fired!"

When the student newspaper acquired the drowning bunnies quote and published it, the shocking character of the president's words carried the controversy beyond the boundaries of the school. The newspaper's faculty adviser was Edward Egan, who ran the pre-law program and was also deeply and historically invested in the school. He was an alumnus, the child of an alumnus, and a former trustee. Mount St. Mary's was, by all indications, an institution Egan loved.

Newman fired him. Summarily. He was escorted off campus by security.

Another faculty member was similarly fired: tenured philosophy professor Thane M. Naberhaus, Newman fired him for "disloyalty," and he fired him without the due process that is normally afforded tenured faculty.

And the provost who was critical of Newman's retention policy? Yeah. He's no longer provost.

Let me say something, first, about the firing of the philosophy professor. Philosophy as a discipline includes within its scope ethical reflection on such things as the policies and practices of societies and its institutions. A philosophy professor thus has things to say--as part of their academic life and career--about the ethics of policies and practices, including those at their own institution. To be denied the freedom to do so--to face summary termination for thinking philosophically about matters close to home--is thus a fundamental truncation of academic freedom. Furthermore, it is precisely the protection of academic freedom in this kind of situation that the institution of tenure exists to protect.

Similar concerns can be raised about the firing of the student newspaper's faculty advisor. The faculty advisor to a newspaper has a duty to teach and encourage serious journalism. And journalism has an important role in a free society, to serve as a kind of social watchdog, to hold those in power accountable for their behavior in part by making public what those in power might rather were kept secret.

The news piece about Newman's proposals and his comments exemplify such journalism. For a school newspaper to expose the words and plans of the university's leadership is not disloyalty but journalism. The newspaper is doing what good journalism has always done. For a faculty advisor to discourage that--or fail to encourage it, for that matter--would be for that faculty advisor to fail to live up to the role that an educator working with student journalists is supposed to fulfill: namely, help them learn to be good journalists.

In other words, by supporting the student paper and its choices, Edward Egan was supporting the students of journalism in doing what the best journalism is supposed to do: hold those in power accountable for the trust that has been placed in them. He was, in short, doing his job well. Newman, by contrast, wasn't. Ed was fired because he helped to expose the latter fact.

By firing those who opposed him, Newman has compounded his earlier failings by demonstrating that he cares more about keeping power in the face of challenges than he cares about serving the institution fairly and honestly. He has also spit in the face of core values that unite all academic institutions, Roman Catholic and otherwise--most notably the importance of academic freedom.

In other words, Newman has demonstrated that his loyalty is not to Mount St. Mary's, but to himself and his own self-interest. He has used his power in the service of injustice, in the manner of tyrants who aim to shut down their vocal opponents and thereby cow into silence everyone else. He has exposed himself as so fundamentally at odds with the values of the academy in general and Roman Catholic higher education in particular that it is hard to imagine a worse candidate for leadership of a Catholic university.

He has gone from being a university president who, because he is out of tune with institutional values, proposes suspect policies, to being a university president egregiously misusing his power to silence opposition at the cost of the welfare of the institution he is supposed to lead and without any regard for that institution's defining values. In other words, based on reasons of ego, he has betrayed the institution he was hired to serve.

Let me be clear. I do not think that anything that has happened so far has given Mount St. Mary's University a bad name. I think the shame falls squarely on the shoulders of the current president and--to the extent that they support him--the board of trustees. The university is a victim in all of this, as are the individuals who lost their jobs. They are the victims of escalating injustice, where unwise decisions were compounded by unresponsiveness to critical feedback and then capped off with the unjust misuse of power.

There is a solution to all of this. It is a simple and elegant solution. It involves removing those who really are disloyal to Mount St. Mary's and its values, and restoring to their jobs those who, out of loyalty to what Mount St. Mary's stands for, criticized and opposed someone with power who threatened what they held dear.

If the university doesn't do this, I wonder what enrollment will look like in the fall. I know I would never send my children there, and I can imagine that many, many parents would feel the same way--including many parents whose students currently attend a school whose president thinks of their children as potential bunnies to be drowned.

I suspect that absent meaningful action to remedy recent injustices, what started as an attempt to massage retention rates may conclude with the worst retention (and new enrollment) statistics in Mount St. Mary's history.

And that, I think, would be a shame.

Monday, February 1, 2016

The Trump Phenomenon, Political Correctness, and Professional Wrestling: A Theory

Trump: Refreshing?

A few months ago, someone I respect said, "Whatever else can be said about the Trump candidacy, he sure is a breath of fresh air!"

I was perplexed. I find Trump grating and offensive. To find him refreshing is so at odds with my experience that I didn't know what to do with the idea.

But as I probed a little deeper, I began to realize that the experience of Trump as "refreshing" was rooted in the very same features of Trump's persona that generated my far more negative response: Trump's tendency to throw conventional social restraints to the wind.

Whether you find that refreshing or offensive depends on how you experience those restraints.

Sometimes, social restraints can feel burdensome. Those who complain about "political correctness" (a term mostly used by those who complain about it) describe it as a kind of hyper-vigilance against any word or gesture that might hurt someone's feelings. specifically the feelings of historically oppressed groups such as women and minorities.

According to these critics of political correctness, standards for protecting the feelings of these groups have become so exacting that well-meaning people have to be constantly on guard against accidentally saying the wrong things or saying them in the wrong way. They feel as if they can never let down their hair and just relax for fear of offending someone. They're constantly walking on egg-shells, exhausted by the effort--all because some people, as they are inclined to put it, are oversensitive and should just grow a thicker skin.

If this is how you feel in relation to a set of social norms, then someone who bull-dogs ahead without the slightest regard for those norms will be experienced as refreshing. It can feel vicariously liberating.

But if you experience those same social norms as essential constraints for a just society, as standards of decency established for the sake of creating a space where human beings can interact from a footing of mutual respect, then the person who bull-dogs through them will be experienced as grating and offensive.

Political Correctness

I don't want to turn this post into an extended exploration of "political correctness"--but it does seem that Trump supporters are heavily represented by people who complain the most strongly about it. So a few words are in order.

Here's what I want to say. "Political correctness" is a term bound up with efforts to point out the ways in which systemic oppression is perpetuated by ordinary people doing and saying things that were entirely acceptable in their communities of origin. When it comes to addressing how such words and behavior contribute to injustice, I believe we should engage with each other in a spirit of grace. That is, I think we should recognize that we're all flawed, that we all come from backgrounds and upbringings that have habituated in us things that maybe shouldn't be there; and we ought to address these realities with patience and forgiveness.

But I also think that we need to hold each other accountable for the ways in which our words and behaviors contribute, however unconsciously, to systems of oppression. Those who most need to be held accountable are probably the very ones who are most likely to find it burdensome. If you were raised in a context where racist and sexist ideas were commonplace, then resisting racism and sexism is going to be hard work. This doesn't mean you shouldn't do that work. It doesn't mean the rest of us shouldn't expect you to do it. But if you're trying to do that work, a spirit of grace should define how others respond to your inevitable failures.

And in case there was any doubt: a spirit of grace should define how we respond to those who have a hard time maintaining a spirit of grace in the face of others' failures.

Maintaining that balance is hard. And even if the balance is struck, people can easily become defensive if they feel that their way of life, their families and communities, are being judged as part of the problem of oppression.

And so we have, on the one hand, morally compelling expectations about how to stand for justice, resist ideas and behaviors that perpetuate oppression, and show respect for historically oppressed groups. On the other hand, we have demands delivered without a spirit of grace that feel both overwhelming and excessive, making no room for ordinary human limitations and loyalties.

Where I experience primarily the former, others experience the latter. I don't want to dwell here on whose experience is right. The truth is that our current social norms almost certainly contain elements of each--and given our backgrounds, we will tend to focus more on some elements than others.

But if our norms contain elements of each, then Donald Trump has been plowing through it all indiscriminately: shaking off the overwhelming and excessive demands along with every real standard of human decency and respect. As his supporters cheer, I am reminded of a low point in my life when I became, however briefly, obsessed with professional wrestling.

Trump as Professional Wrestler

Back in the late '90's, there was a brief period when I was sucked into professional wresting. I watched it daily, at first bemused, then fascinated, then hooked. It was a spectacle in which none of the ordinary rules of propriety and decency obtained. It was all about testosterone-fueled indignation. But because it was all pretend, watching it was strangely liberating. I could vicariously step into a world where all those norms were suspended, where I had no need to watch myself or censor myself.

The pretense of reality made that release possible: The wrestlers pretended it was all real, and so I could imagine that it was real. But at least in my case, it was also crucial that I knew it was pretense. Since it was fake, there were no costs. No harm done (at least if I ignored the news stories about the personal meltdowns of the actors). At a time when I felt overwhelmed by moral demands and judgments delivered without that crucial spirit of grace, professional wrestling offered me an escape into a world where those kinds of expectations were like tissue paper to be torn off and cast aside.

In a recent ThinkProgress piece, Judd Legum makes the case that professional wrestling offers us a lens for understanding Trump's success. Legum invokes the ideas of the French philosopher Roland Barthes, who tried to understand the appeal of professional wrestling. Unlike boxing, which is about excellence achieved within the confines of a sport defined by rules, "wrestling is a sum of spectacles." It is spectacle defined by passion, by indignation, by a rough sense of justice meted out with body-slams and folding chairs turned into weapons.

The ring is a pretense, and the spectacle spills outside it regularly to remind us that there are no rules. As Barthes puts it:
Some fights, among the most successful kind, are crowned by a final charivari, a sort of unrestrained fantasia where the rules, the laws of the genre, the referee’s censuring and the limits of the ring are abolished, swept away by a triumphant disorder which overflows into the hall and carries off pell-mell wrestlers, seconds, referee and spectators.
Judd Legum thinks Barthes analysis of professional wrestling would work as well as an analysis of Trump's campaign. Trump is campaigning as if the electorate were professional wresting fans. What he offers is the kind of spectacle that is most absorbing, most satisfying, when all the rules are swept away by a triumphant disorder.

And so Trump can lie, and be caught in his lie by a disabled journalist, and then mock the disabled journalist with physical gestures obviously mimicking the journalist's disability--and then, instead of apologizing for such blatant offensiveness, go on the attack, accusing the the journalist of "grandstanding about his disability."

This is the pro wrestler with the microphone, insulting all his opponents with self-righteous indignation, all to the wild enthusiasm of the crowd.

Is it refreshing?

When excessive rules and overwhelming expectations are publicly brushed aside, that can be refreshing. But when all rules, all norms of common decency and restraint, are ignored in favor of the pro-wrestler's self-righteous brand of bullying, the resultant spectacle can be refreshing only to the extent that we recognize it as pretense--a fiction to be indulged for a  moment, an escape from reality.

But the illusion of a world where ignoring all standards of decorum has no consequences is just that: an illusion. It can be momentarily liberating to step into the fiction. But if the fiction spills out of the arena and into the real world, if the triumphant disorder is not contained to the realm of pretense, then what we have isn't a refreshing spectacle. What we have is a disaster.

So for me, the key question is this: Will Trump's supporters, caught up in the spectacle of their favorite wrestler beating down all opponents without any regard for conventional standards and restraints, realize that Trump's candidacy is taking place in the real world--a world where ignoring rules of human decency actually does real harm? As primary season kicks off, will his fans start stepping back from the spectacle and say, "Oh, but this is the actual leadership of a real country we're talking about, not just a show"?

Today's Iowa Caucuses will offer some clues, if not a definitive answer.