Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Drowning Bunnies, Firing Faculty - For What? RANKINGS?

There's been a lot of Sturm und Drang about an unfolding disaster at Mount St. Mary's College in Maryland. The current focus is on the college president's decision to fire a tenured professor for "disloyalty", which is pretty much guaranteed to bring down the wrath of the scholarly community. Anytime the AAUP and FIRE agree on something, you know you have a problem.

Lost in the current uproar, however, is the idea that started the whole argument, which had something to do with freshman retention. What caught national attention was the president apparently saying to a group of faculty, "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 ... hold a Glock to their heads."

Talking about students as bunnies to be drowned is no way to win faculty favor either. Behind the unfortunate choice of words was an apparently concrete goal the president had established, which was to have 20-25 freshmen leave the college before Sept. 25. After that point, they would have to be reported as "dropouts" and would count in the retention data. Before that, they would disappear off the books.

Now, this is a terrible thing - admitting students and then, within the first few weeks of the semester, trying to get some of them to leave. The president and the Board, which is apparently backing him, have been roundly criticized for such a plan. What I haven't seen, however, is anyone asking why? Why would any college want to do such a thing?

The answer lies hidden in an early Chronicle article written about the controversy (before people started getting fired). You can find the article here; the key point is this:
Late in September, at an impromptu meeting that included Mr. Newman [the president], Mr. Murry [a key faculty member], and several others, Mr. Murry said the president "explicitly argued that getting students to leave was necessary in order to prevent a drop in the rankings." The discussion, he said, "involved proposals for both convincing students to voluntarily withdraw and using involuntary dismissal." Mr. Murry said Mr. Newman also asked him for a list of freshmen who could be encouraged to leave.
There's the key, right in the middle of the paragraph. All of this - the unfortunate metaphor of "drowning bunnies", the angst and drama about a student survey and various strategies for freshmen retention, the subsequent firing of a provost and two faculty members - all of it is in the service of propping up Mount St. Mary's position on a US News list.

Henry Kissinger was famously quoted as saying that academic politics are so vicious because the stakes are so small (a variation of Sayre's Law). This case seems to be the ultimate vindication of that observation - lives are being ruined because of a rating in a publication that means less and less each year. And for all of the college's other transgressions, this to me seems the greatest sin.

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