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.