Home > Uncategorized > The Mount St. Mary’s story is just so terrible

The Mount St. Mary’s story is just so terrible

February 11, 2016

I’m sure many of you have heard the story that a tenured professor, as well as a non-tenured professor, were fired recently by the president, Simon Newman, of Mount St. Mary’s school in Maryland.

The short version: Newman, a private equity asshole, got confused as to where he was working and decided to fire anyone who disagreed with him, referring to disloyalty as the cause.

The specific “act of disloyalty” one of the professors made was to allow a student newspaper to report a (true) comment the president didn’t want made public, namely:

“This is hard for you because you think of the students as cuddly bunnies, but you can’t,” Mr. Newman is quoted as saying. “You just have to drown the bunnies.” He added, “Put a Glock to their heads.”

OK, gross and shocking.

But personally, I was even more disgusted by the story behind this story, namely his underlying plan to get rid of students for the sake of improving the college’s “retention rate” and thus its ranking on the US News & World Reports College rankings, that scourge of higher education.

The original article from the student newspaper explains Newman’s unfuckingbelievable plan. From the article:

Mount St. Mary’s University, like all colleges and universities in the U.S., is required by the federal government to submit the number of students enrolled each semester. The Mount’s cutoff date for the Fall 2015 semester was Sept. 25, and the number of students enrolled as of that date would be the number used to compute the Mount’s student retention.

Newman was obsessed with getting rid of students and revealed this in an email:

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.”

How was he going to achieve this number?

The president’s plan to “cull the class” involved using a student survey that was developed in the president’s office and administered during freshman orientation.

The survey was going to be given to students and started out by describing itself as “based on some of the leading thinking in the area of personal motivation and key factors that determine motivation, success, and happiness. We will ask you some questions about yourself that we would like you to answer as honestly as possible. There are no wrong answers.”

The actual plan for the results of the survey were a bit different – they would be used to help compile a list of students to get rid of before the deadline. Just so gross, and a wonderful example of how an algorithm can be used for good or evil. Please read the rest of the article, it’s amazing journalism.

Holy crap, people, this gaming of the US News & World Reports model has got to stop, this shit is nuts. And it makes me wonder how many other places are doing stuff like this and not getting caught. I mean, at least at this university the president was stupid enough to tell the professors the plan, right?

Categories: Uncategorized
  1. February 11, 2016 at 8:06 am

    This whole episode underscores the failed notion that schools should be run like a business. And it isn’t just colleges that do this… for-profit charters cook their numbers ridiculously… they intimidate and repeatedly suspend students who can’t “meet their standards” and build up their graduation rates by leaving a trail of “voluntary transfers” behind.

    Fortunately for our country, public school teachers still think of their students as cuddly bunnies.


  2. February 11, 2016 at 8:21 am

    A sensible organisation would give the test to the applicants and weed out the unsuitables before they start. What’s “sensible” got to do with it?


  3. February 11, 2016 at 8:32 am

    Well, what’s probably going on is fine-tuning a tradeoff between (a) getting a lot of applicants to lower the acceptance ratio (69% or so), and (b) getting the retention rate they want. Testing during admission would reduce applications, increase acceptance ratio, etc. Nasty game, and they’re playing it in a particularly bad way.

    There are some notable colleges that don’t play this game. Reed, for one.


  4. February 11, 2016 at 8:35 am

    This is one of those stories you read in utter disbelief that the reporters could have gotten it all right; surely, there is some sort of misunderstanding or something taken out-of-context… but no, apparently not! :-[[[ …a case that cries out for ‘twitter-shaming.’


  5. February 11, 2016 at 8:56 am

    It’s just the Billy Gates Gruff model of Rank and Yank —
    and yes it’s happening all over the place …

    But Hey! They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?


  6. Priscilla Bremser
    February 11, 2016 at 9:48 am

    Perhaps the president should have read this before designing his “survey”: http://robertkeefer.us/irb/
    Yes, hooray for Reed College and its refusal to participate in the USNews charade. Of course other institutions try to improve their rankings in questionable ways, perhaps not this bad, but in ways that don’t contribute anything to educational value.


  7. February 11, 2016 at 10:24 am

    “And it makes me wonder how many other places are doing stuff like this and not getting caught.”

    I think trickery around success rates is very widespread to some degree — possibly universal. Of course you have Goodhart’s Law: “When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.” I’ve come to the opinion that even talking about graduation rates as an issue, for example, inevitably leads to graduation rates being faked.

    A few examples I’m aware of at a major New York public university:

    – Chancellor a few years ago made passing rates in remedial algebra a priority; but the report he got only displayed numbers taking final exams on the uniform system (data which was easy to acquire). So all of the dozen colleges one-by-one transitioned to giving a mandatory pre-final qualifying exam, and ejecting any students who failed prior to the “real” final, thus boosting their “passed the final” ratio to near-100% in every case. (The last few holdouts had incredible pressure put on them to “get scores up no matter what”; note that this Chancellor was even a math guy himself.) It took a few years for the system to recognize this and then respond by mandating that all registrants take the real final exam no matter what.

    – Current Chancellor confronting same problem is likely to just waive or remove the remedial algebra requirement so as to boost graduation rates.

    – By the book, “withdrawals” are only permitted for students while they are still passing a class; paperwork was required attesting to that fact, signed by professors. But I don’t think any professors ever actually checked before signing those papers. In recent years, the paperwork simply went away and registrars process all withdrawal requests no matter what (thus, reducing “fail” rates).

    – Likewise, in some colleges advisers come into the classrooms and encourage any students not passing to withdraw before the cutoff date (same effect).

    – Some locations say that teachers are effectively not allowed to fail any students; for example, incompletes must be given instead in most or all cases.

    – New York Regents scores are, to my understanding, mostly made-up metrics predicated on what percent of students are desired to pass in a particular year. (See chart near bottom here.)

    – Last month in New York, nearly half of high school special-education teacher applicants failed the math portion of their certification exams. So, Regents announced a “safety net” in which the math exams would be waived as long as applicants took an online tutorial instead (link).

    – Pressure for high-stakes testing does lead to some instructors “teaching to the test” in a way that leaves students unable to remember anything coherently after the fact, or being able to pass the next class in a sequence. For example, on a multiple-choice standardized test I know some teachers basically teach the whole class as “test taking strategies”, recognizing the specific questions on that test and rejecting certain answer formats that will appear, etc.

    I should say that personally I think I’m in a top-notch department that’s become nigh-notorious for fighting back against this kind of stuff, but when I communicate with people in other colleges and departments my heart pretty much bleeds for them.


  8. mathematrucker
    February 11, 2016 at 2:28 pm

    This isn’t in the same league, but the first exam in our undergraduate probability course was blatantly designed and graded to get as many students as possible to withdraw from the class. Over half the class received an F on it.

    Pissed off, I composed a complaint in the form of a student survey, then anonymously left a copy on everyone’s desk well before the next lecture (luckily there was no class before ours).

    Very few people filled out and submitted the survey, but this didn’t matter much to me. I mainly wanted the professor to know his tactics made someone angry enough to go to the trouble of composing and distributing a survey!

    I must not have a very good poker face, because after discovering the survey when he arrived for class, while reading it the professor gradually made his way over to where I was sitting (in the front row on the far side of the class). He stood right next to me the whole time he gave his response.

    He turned out to be one of my favorite professors, but to this day I still regard his weeding philosophy as selfish and unjust.


    • February 11, 2016 at 3:39 pm

      What happened at Mount Saint Mary’s is indeed unbelievably awful (as well as the ranking system that encourages this kind of behavior).

      I think that giving a hard midterm in a class that weeds out some students is not such a bad thing, however. This is generally not a tactic to improve passing rates, but rather to make sure that the right students are in the right classes.


      • February 11, 2016 at 3:42 pm

        And also, for the students who are staying in the class, to encourage them to work harder.


      • mathematrucker
        February 11, 2016 at 8:27 pm

        Oops I inadvertently edited out how early that first exam was. After just a week or so we were assigned something that was graded so harshly, it seemed obvious the professor’s main goal was to greatly reduce the class size. (Maybe it was just a graded homework assignment rather than an exam.) There would have been other factors I no longer recall, things like how the professor explained the preponderance of failing grades, etc., that went into my judgement at the time.


  9. rh
    February 11, 2016 at 5:57 pm

    But amorally finding some small thing to drastically improve a metric is exactly what his background in private equity has taught him is incentivized, no? So, is it shocking? I mean, it’s certainly horrible.


  10. KP
    February 20, 2016 at 7:46 am

    ” this gaming of the US News & World Reports model has got to stop”

    I remember at my MidWest liberal arts school in the late 90s becoming convinced that the Provost’s entire job had become trying to game the USNWR model. Every time I heard her name mentioned by a professor or in the school newspaper, it was directly in relation to some rating metric they were trying to improve on. I worked for awhile as a research assistant for a Greek professor who was trying to make a case to hire a Latin professor so we could have a Classics major. My task was to contact all the USNWR top 25 liberal arts schools and ask about Classics dept enrollment, to show that “peer” institutions could support an additional Classics professor. The joke, to me at least, was that these schools were so much better than mine that there’s no way they were truly “peer” institutions. But the Provost thought our school was an as-yet-unacknowledged member of that list, so that’s how she had to be convinced.


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