I never considered Glocks and drowning as educational tools before

It’s no secret that universities suffer a steady attrition of students. We get applicants; not all the accepted decide to attend. We lose students the first year, the second year, etc.; not every student meets the graduation requirements, so not every student gets a degree. This steady loss is simply a fact of life.

But that doesn’t mean we give up and don’t try! We faculty have a responsibility to our students. Are you leaving because you can’t afford tuition? Let’s refer you to financial aid, and let’s elect Bernie. Is it the lack of social support? Let’s help you find a study group, or a campus club, let’s try to enroll more people like you to get the critical mass. Did you miss out on some essential academic skills? Here’s a remedial class, here’s our tutoring center.

Good teachers want to improve retention and shepherd more students to completion of their degree because we care about the students, every one of them. So much of my effort is spent on trying to figure out ways to make teaching more inclusive: every year, I look at the exams and see that some percentage of students are struggling to grasp some basic concepts, and my goal then is to try something different, some new approach, that will reduce that percentage.

Of course, if I were an administrator, I might have a different goal. Another strategy would be to make like so miserable for those students who didn’t get the concept that they drop out, and therefore aren’t around at the end of the term to lower the average grade of the course, and most importantly, weren’t enrolled to submit negative evaluations of my teaching.

I don’t think that way, but apparently Mount St. Mary’s University President Simon Newman does.

Newman’s email continued: My short term goal is to have 20-25 people leave by the 25th [of Sep.]. This one thing will boost our retention 4-5%. A larger committee or group needs to work on the details but I think you get the objective.

Wait, you might be thinking, how does driving students out of the university improve retention rates? Easy. The rate is calculated from the base number of students that are enrolled as of some start date, in this case 25 September. Any student you can boot out before that date doesn’t count.

So Newman is intending to consciously game the system. He’s completely missing the point of education: we have a responsibility to teach the young members of society how to think, and he’s looking for excuses to shirk that responsibility to the most difficult subset. His faculty are not; they were horrified at his plan to cull out students and gamed him right back, refusing to hand over lists of students who deserved the axe until his 25 September deadline passed. They ran out the clock on him.

But never fear, Newman had an excuse to cover his repellent idea.

The president, Simon Newman, acknowledged to The Washington Post that he was pushing a plan to intervene early on with students who may be having difficulties. But he said that this was to help them, although he said that the help in some cases might be for them to see that they might be better off a less expensive public institution.

That’s such a weird suggestion. So he’s admitting that his institution is more expensive, but that that extra cost does not Mount St. Mary’s University a better teaching institution. What, exactly, does that extra expense bring to the students? Often it’s a tool for excluding undesirables — the poor and minorities — rather than for creating a better learning experience.

I actually agree that students may often benefit more from less expensive universities…because often, places like community colleges are more student-focused and value good teaching more. I’d say the same of small liberal arts colleges, but they can also be expensive (not my university, though — we’re part of the public college system here in Minnesota).

But why would you brag ‘We’re more expensive, but less interested in providing a good learning experience to our students’?

One reason is a lack of respect for students. Newman went a little far in providing a metaphor for his plan to cull students.

According to Murry, during the course of the conversation, Newman said, 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.

Did I say a little far? I meant channeled the Joker and went all super-villain. That is a man who is totally unsuited to his position and ought to be dismissed at the earliest opportunity.

But he probably won’t be, because he represents a terrible trend in higher ed, the idea of hiring business executives to run institutions of learning.

Newman became the school’s president in December 2014 after working as an entrepreneur and private equity fund executive. His school biography does not list any prior experience as an educator.

These people don’t get it. They have a skewed vision of what the university is for, seeing nothing but profit margins and ratios. We are constantly trying to appease the assholes who get appointed to boards of regents or elected to state congress by pretending that teaching is a business rather than a social service, a communal responsibility, and we end up propping up untenable models of education.

We are undeniably in an era where the governing model of education is one that conceives of students as customers. In fact, this cognitive model of how colleges and students relate to one another, that of a business selling to customer, is currently so deeply rooted in how we see and discuss higher education that it can be difficult to even imagine other frames or metaphors for the relationship between educators and those who access that education. In our era of economic survivalism, students are not only customers, but, insidiously, are becoming marks, the unwitting victims propping up an unsustainable model of education.

My students are not my “customers”. They are people with aspirations to whom I have a responsibility to help achieve great things. Even the ones who start out confused and lost — it is my job to help them find their way, not to cast them out.


  1. tsig says

    If the students don’t preform, Glock ’em.

    I once worked at a hospital and the admin didn’t count patients but beds filled.

  2. says

    Shouldn’t students be able to sue? Obviously, they’re not getting fair treatment if there’s a set percentage of how many students have to drop out regardless of actual achievement.
    That’s also what you get when people think that grades should be normal distribution. Fuck that shit. If you can get your whole class to actually grasp the concepts you set as your goals at an A level, they all deserve an A.

  3. drst says

    I believe culling students is also beneficial to the university since after a certain point in the semester, the university gets to keep any loan funds distributed to the school. So the school gets to keep the students $10K in loans but has no obligation to provide support services to keep the student enrolled and the loan providers including the government do next to nothing to ensure those services exist.

    But if the student drops out, the student still has to pay back the $10K. All the harm is on the student, there is no punishment for the university if it fails the student and the school actually makes out great by getting to keep all that money no matter what they do.

  4. gmacs says

    Ugh, business-folk presidents. They’re not bad by default, but the assumption that they can run an educational institution is.

    My wife’s university just got one of these jerks for president, over several more qualified candidates. There’s also a bunch of talk that the Board of Regents was doing some pretty underhanded and unethical shit to put him there. It scares me, too, because my university is part of the same regency. I actually like our president, even if I don’t like a bunch of the policies that started before he did, but which he’s continued*.

    *All the colleges in our state are doing this. They recruit heavily, because the regents are offering some incentive for having the most in-state students. This means the student bodies at the universities are growing faster than the faculty, they have to tear down buildings near campus for new housing, and the regional community colleges are suffering from lowered enrollment. All the while, more people are going in for a level of education that isn’t necessary for their career goals, and they are amassing debt. I suspect it’s a bubble that’s going to burst after the infrastructure of college towns has changed, but before people have paid off their debts. But hey, the business-folk have this under control.

  5. robro says

    Not to defend the solution cooked up by Norman…and defended by the board who hired him…but part of the problem might be the Fed’s use of this retention information. What it’s for? (My google foo failed to hit anything relevant.) It’s one thing if they are just tracking a statistic, but it’s another matter if the information is used to evaluate school and teacher performance, and/or affects funding as part of this “accountability” fad governments have gotten into with education.

  6. jerthebarbarian says

    robro @7

    Retention stats are used as part of the Federal financial aid program in an attempt to make sure that actual schools are distinguished from scams that are just using students as conduits to funnel money out of the Feds and into the schools (and leaving the students footing the bill).

    Given that this is a private university, if they’re worried about retention then their real problem lies in their acceptance of too many students who are not ready for college. Accepting a student should be a judgment by the university that the student is likely to be able to complete the degree program the student is applying for at that university. Instead too many universities seem to think that setting the admission for entry at a point where a certain number of students who aren’t ready come and spend two years of money at the institution before leaving is not just acceptable, but a nice target to hit.

    (Public universities of course have different pressures – state governments usually want them to be institutions of learning for everyone in the state and so there are other pressures on their admission stats. But private universities generally have no such mandate and administrators at both kinds of universities seem to like to game the system in ways that are harmful to their students.)

  7. says

    …an entrepreneur and private equity fund executive…

    This says it all, really. Anyone who has the word “enterpreneur” in their CV should be sumarily dismissed from aplying for any job that requires actually caring about people and not purely about maximizing profit. I am sure there are some enterpreneurs who are perfectly nice people, but I see that word always used in connection with people who could be also described by (combination of) other words – sociopath, asshole, selfish, greedy, heartless, criminal.

    It is not only education in US that suffers from the malady of professional managers. I see it in automotive industry too (and from what I hear, it is in other industries as well). In last twenty years managers are no longer engineers who know both the technical and the business end of what they are trying to manage and who worked their way up in the structure through being good. Nowadays they are being replaced by technically incompetent MBAs who have no idea about what is and is not technically possible/plausible and thus have sometimes naive or downright impossible expectations and set unfulfillable goals. And when it blows in their face (as it always does) they get swapped between companies and the cycle begins anew. Managers change quicker than janitors.

    (As an aside, this is one of the reasons why I do not believe that managers of VW were innocent in the emissions scandal, because both Piech and Winterkorn were actually some of the last really technically savvy top-managers in the whole industry I know of.)

    One of my friends uses a nifty term for these managers whose skills consist solely of making excel spreadsheets and powerponint presentations and who never actually did any work or got any original idea of their own – “Powerpoint jockey”. Mostly they are not even charismatic leaders, because they lack real social skills. They get the idea that they must smile at people and try to remember their names – but they do not care and people see throught their facade pretty quickly.

    Our schools are still public and still tuition free including universities, but this kind of thinking is present here too. Universities get money based on the number of students, so they take as many as possible at the beginning of the year and cull them quickly in the first semester. If the student makes it throught the first semester, they are likely to finish the school completely.

    Private schools alas exist, but they are for MBAs and similar and are only for the rich kids. There is no danger of getting any education in there they are diploma mills…

  8. says

    I am so sick of the idea that anything other than a business needs to be run like a business. Government is not a business. Schools… Well, private schools are, but public schools aren’t. Let the “University” of Phoenix be what it is and let real schools concentrate on education above all else.

  9. karmacat says

    These are the same people who are running health insurance companies. Patients using their health insurance is considered a loss by these executives. Health care just doesn’t fit a business model, yet they keep trying to do that in this country

  10. frog says

    I took the long and winding road to my undergrad degree, starting at a prestigious university, dropping out, and then going back via a community college and a public university. My time in a community college was without doubt the most useful and productive part of my education. I didn’t need any remedial courses or whatnot; what I needed was someone to show me how to go to college, because I had coasted through my high school, even with a challenging, AP-exam-heavy schedule.

    My original university utterly failed me in their sink-or-swim approach. I struggled along for three years, not having any idea where to go for help (or even that I should go for help). I can’t entirely blame the people there, but perhaps if there had been more emphasis on “send your struggling students to our professional counselors who can figure out what their problem is,” I might have had a different outcome.

    Whereas the community college I went to had PILES of such resources, and made sure everyone knew they existed and made sure students were referred to them as needed. And the profs there really seemed to like teaching. A lot of them were faculty at larger universities who taught just one course at the CC. I can’t imagine the money alone was enough to make that worth their time.

    The public college that eventually gave me my degree (I only spent 18 months there and had enough credits to graduate thanks to all the earlier schooling) often asks me for donations. I send my money to my community college instead. It’s no exaggeration to say they saved me from being a lifelong underachiever.

  11. Bernard Bumner says

    The involvement of business executives at the top of Universities is not entirely a bad thing, in my opinion. It has helped UK Universities to implement the politically driven public funding cuts whilst still remaining at the cutting edge of global research. On the other hand, it has also driven exactly the sort of commoditization of education discussed above, and which is which is damaging to all, but particularly disadvantaged students.

    The problem stems as much from the remit granted to University heads and pushed by politicians as it does with the business people taking up those roles. Proper public funding which fully reflects the value of all types of education and attainment would relieve many of the pressures that drive stupid policies where the administration seem to expect all of their students to exceed the average.

  12. Rich Woods says

    @gmacs #5:

    All the while, more people are going in for a level of education that isn’t necessary for their career goals, and they are amassing debt. I suspect it’s a bubble that’s going to burst after the infrastructure of college towns has changed, but before people have paid off their debts. But hey, the business-folk have this under control.

    And the control they implement will be sufficient to ensure that they will always walk away with a shedload of money, regardless of how badly the college goes down the pan.

  13. numerobis says

    I don’t really see business executives and entrepreneurs as being the same thing at all. Entrepreneurs take big personal risk to start businesses. Executives collect big bucks to run businesses. That difference selects for very different mind sets.

    In Silicon Valley and maybe NYC, many startups these days start with nearly zero risk to the founders, so I don’t know how to classify them. The rest of the entrepreneurship world isn’t like that.

  14. blf says

    In Silicon Valley […] many startups these days start with nearly zero risk to the founders […]. The rest of the entrepreneurship world isn’t like that.

    Citation needed (on the second point, about non–Silicon Valley weasels). You could be correct, I myself only have had contact with the Silicon Valley eejits, whom I obviously detest.

  15. empty says

    When you compare administrators and instructors you really are comparing apples and oranges. I think the reason for the prevalence of this fallacy is that there was a time when administrators were professors who had taken on administrative duties – either because they were good at administration and liked it, or someone had to do the job and they drew the short straw. That is no longer the case. The administrators are now a separate class with incentives very different from that of a teacher. As a teacher I get a lot of psychological benefit from being able to help a student learn. To get a struggling student to actually understand the material gives me a high. A similar situation exists in research where discovery in and of itself is a reward. And its not just private satisfaction. The students recognize my teaching, from time to time I get a paper published. I get all sorts of external validation – at least used to. The administrators’ situation is very different. They might get some satisfaction in facilitating the work of the faculty, but almost all their external validation is because of metrics that are only peripherally related to teaching or research. Teaching is important only for tuition revenue, and research for grants. And the most important kudos might be the result of the performance of athletic teams or because of donations for a new building. So what PZ thinks is the primary mission of the university is not what the administrators see as the primary mission of the university.

    Unfortunately, because of the golden rule, the administrators metrics and views take precedence. Generally, it is frowned upon to be a truly bad teacher, but being an excellent teacher will not get you many tangible rewards. Similarly with research – what will make you the apple of your dean’s or chancellors eye will be the money you bring in, not what you do with it.

    The system will collapse at some point due in part to these internal contradictions. But it will be a while. In the mean time the best one can do is act locally.

  16. unclefrogy says

    the problem with education exampled here does highlight the problem very clearly with trying to run everything as a business.
    By running everything as a business in operation it means making a profit which is the measure of success of a business. Of course the most simplistic way to measure for a business does not translate very well to things or activities such as education, health care, nor infrastructure . How do you determine the profit for an institution designed to educate the population?
    build and maintain roads and bridges that are useful and needed?
    or for the health of the population?
    If we insist that everything should be run as a business then we should insist that we think of it as an integrated business and not divided up into smaller devisions which we manage as if they are in competition with each other when in reality they are all engaged in aspects of the the same thing the support and furtherance of society as a whole which is composed of the all people. It seems simple to me at least in concept if not in practice, If we focus on that such as education we increase the capability of the citizens then their earning power potential increases which would increase the ability of the population to pay for the increased services. The improvement in the education would also have the added benefit of increasing the wisdom of the voters which might help us to avoid making mistakes in the future.
    That would require a much longer frame of reference the the next quarter or two that modern business management is all to often focused on. Health care infrastructure and education all require a longer horizon than 10 years often much longer.
    What we are doing is analogous to trying to make plant maintenance a profit center rather than a necessary expense to support producing of the product which generates the profit of the business.

    uncle frogy

  17. Steven Brown: Man of Mediocrity says

    See, I don’t understand why business people like the idea of treating students like customers.
    If I’m a customer of a university and they provide me with a substandard product doesn’t that open the university up to me taking them to court for failing to provide the services I’ve paid for?
    If I, for example, purchased a car under the impression it had low emissions and it turned out the car manufacturer was gaming the testing system, then I’m pretty sure I could sue.
    If I paid for an education and the university not only failed to supply said education but then went out of their way to deny me the education I’ve paid for, surely I can sue?

    Here in NZ if our universities were to try and treat us students like customers then they’d probably be even more screwed because we have decent consumer protection laws…

  18. unclefrogy says

    that is the first mistake that is made with thinking of education as a business.
    The student is not the customer an educated student, a graduate is the product it is the society at large that is the consumer of the product. Education is the process by which the raw materials and components are assembled into the product, an educated citizen.
    the difficulty in seeing that is the fact that product is also a member of society, a citizen, it is just not easy to translate these kinds of things into a business model. It is to easy to get the parts confused and work at cross-purposes.
    uncle frogy

  19. Mobius says

    When I was teaching calculus, the last course in the sequence covered multi-variable calculus and series. The two areas can be taught independently so you can start the semester with either one or the other. However, series is the more difficult to grasp by quite a margin. I always joked that I would start the semester with series to chase off the faint of heart and reduce class size. I never did, though. I really did want the students to understand the math and they couldn’t if they dropped the course.

  20. says

    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.

    I really hope this Newman fellow doesn’t have any pets at home.

  21. jrkrideau says

    I was just going to ask if Newman had been lured away from a for-profit charter school company but private equity fund executive is close enough.

    I take it Mount St. Mary’s is a respectable school? I’m not from the USA and the name means nothing to me.

    Re customer etc, it seems everywhere. I was in my old alma mater’s new phys ed complex a year or so ago and the main desk (Membership sales, Lost and Found, and who know what else) had a big sign “Customer Service”. I was absolutely appalled.

    One of the problems with hiring businessmen as senior university administrators is that they are not really used to dealing with complexity. In a private business (much simplified) there is one goal, make a profit. Or as Rupert Brooke put it in speaking about an acquaintance, “His mind was even more childlike and transparent than is usual with a businessman”.
    Letters from America pg 62.

  22. DanDare says


    Rate every institution 1 bad to 10 good.

    Measure initial enrollments based on likelihood to graduate. Reduce rating if institute filters for winners only.

    For a student likely to graduate score a small amount if they do. Score huge negative if they dont.

    For a student unlikely to graduate score big if they do and small negative if they don’t.

    Do some normalizing on the scores and link senior staff salaries to the score. Make it mandatory across the nation.

  23. chigau (違う) says

    Steven Brown #19
    Ah. Yes. But.
    Universities are also taking a risk.
    They have all this expensive infrastructure and captive professors and stuff.
    If they themselves admit substandard students (who drink all the beer and never go to class), can they sue themselves for … something?

  24. multitool says

    Shit I would have *loved* to have been treated as a customer. Customers have rights.

    My experience of college was a very expensive hazing to join a higher socioeconomic club. If you’re having trouble, fuck you, there’s plenty more where you came from.
    Nobody would accept any other business treating their customers that way, especially at thousands of dollars a year.

    I am surprised that PZM’s college offers social support such as study groups. I would have killed for such a thing when I needed it. Instead when I brought it up most faculty and students regarded such things as poison, because everyone ‘studies better on their own’.

  25. bassmike says

    The same sort of thing is happening at the educational establishment where I work: Where there are currently support staff in each department to give a friendly face to students and help them through their degrees, the powers that be are replacing them with generic call centres. In one stroke reducing the personal contact that students have with the departments, devaluing the staff’s roles and royally pissing off said staff.

    Apparently, this will ‘enhance the student experience’. I have my doubts!

  26. nathanieltagg says

    Clearly an odious adminibuzzard.

    There’s a flip side to this, though: failing students early IS right for some students. I work at a private liberal arts college, and although our tuition isn’t completely sky-high, it’s a huge financial burden to students. This has gotten worse in recent years as student loans have become more predatory, and families have less to contribute due to salary stagnation.

    So: if I have a student who is severely struggling, it’s important that I don’t string them along telling them it’s all going to be ok. It’s my duty to first give them help, but second give them accurate feedback. Even that isn’t enough though: I see far too many students who say ‘failure isnt’ an option’ and then proceed to waste years of time and oodles of money failing to get a degree. I see far too many students who pin all their hopes on being a medic or a vet who will never complete well enough to get in.

    I often despair that we’re setting these young people back too far before they’ve even taken their first steps.

  27. brucegee1962 says

    I teach at a community college, and it’s a great place to work.

    We have the same problem, though. Since we’ve got an open door policy (we take anybody), a certain percentage of our students simply aren’t ready for college — or they were forced to go by their parents (“Get a job, go to college, or move out!”) and it simply isn’t a priority for them. There are two choices for such students: remediate the heck out of them, which is expensive for them and us, or else find subtle ways of discouraging them from signing up in the first place — make that open door a little less open.

    In the past, we went for the remediation — but a certain, rather high percentage just aren’t going to pass no matter what (“My boss wanted me to take more hours, and that’s why I’ve missed the last three weeks of class.”) And now we’ve got politicians to worry about, who see those low success rates and start rumbling about cutting off funding for colleges with the lowest success rates. So the pressure to slam the open door gets to be even greater.

  28. brucegee1962 says

    Oh, also — another villain in the piece is US News & World Reports’ ranking system, which puts a high weight on student success. Though to be fair — no matter what kind of numerical system they used to rank colleges, the colleges would immediately turn around and start figuring out how to game it.

  29. smrnda says

    The problem with the entrepreneur mindset is that, in the end, everybody and everything becomes a disposable commodity the moment it negatively impacts the narrowly conceived short term goals, all of which don’t usually take into account what happens to anyone else. The whole ‘drowning bunnies and glocks’ just shows how flippant people from the business sector are about treating human beings like disposable commodities. There is no duty to students, or only duties to *some of them.*

    Though I’m not totally against treating students like consumers – in some cases, it pays to be responsive to what students want up to a point, or at least as long as it’s not something which would compromise the quality of education (like making courses so easy that they no longer teach anything.)