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Mount St. Mary University President Resigns

March 1, 2016

The Baltimore Sun reports that Mount St. Mary University President Resigns. We must now ask, “Will MSM itself survive?”

The Mount St. Mary’s imbroglio shines a light on a very traditional Catholic institution and pressures to adjust for institutional survival. Most Catholic colleges like MSM changed themselves into secular institutions decades ago partly for reasons of a changing educational culture and partly because of loss of faith among Catholic religious orders.

In the 1960s, Catholic men’s colleges universally became coed, most Catholic women’s colleges followed and many began to de-emphasize the “Catholic” history of their institutions. Today many indicate that they are “Jesuit,” or “Franciscan,” but not “Catholic” and all will say something about “diversity.” Since none has a discriminatory bone in their institutional bodies, a commitment to diversity means admitting less qualified students in a commitment to affirmative discrimination.

MSM symbolizes, unlike these other “Catholic” institutions, a struggle to sustain a truly Catholic education in a secular—and high cost—academic environment.

My guess is that only a radical restructuring along with a forceful defense of its Catholic culture can save MSM. Good business leadership alone is not sufficient and President Newman has demonstrated that he didn’t have a clue about higher education administration in the United States.  He was, quite simply, in over his head.

There is little information about what caused MSM’s president to act in the outrageous way that he did except his own ignorance and his focus on “managing” low retention rates. I infer that admission decisions were taken before President Newman arrived in 2014 to sustain enrollments by lowering standards. Students not prepared for the rigors of MSM’s core curriculum were admitted and not enough qualified students were attracted to MSM’s traditional Catholic program.

President Newman’s predecessor apparently failed to take steps necessary for survival which would have included extremely good marketing, institutional commitment to the Catholic identity of MSM, adoption of Internet based courses, wholesale restructuring of MSM’s faculty—i.e. layoffs and early retirement–and a robust Development program.

MSM’s core curriculum, called the Veritas program, is very good—too good to compete with Notre Dame, Villanova, Boston College and other high quality—but not better in terms of Catholic character–Catholic institutions.

How MSM’s Catholic culture was sustained to the present day given the drift toward vocational education in American higher education is hard to understand. The college’s endowment (estimated at $47 million) was not the reason MSM was able to “keep the faith” for decades.

MSM appears to have lived in a time warp of sorts that protected it—until now—from the ravages of high operating costs, declining enrollments, lowering of admission standards and rapid secularization of American culture–led by American colleges and universities.  Nothing radical was done to contain high costs nor to market a very Catholic MSM properly.

Tuition at MSM is $37,000 a  year and room and board costs another $13,000. Annual total: $50,000. That places MSM firmly in the rank of high cost private institutions, but without their public reputation.

Will Mount St. Marry survive the coming creative destruction of American higher education?

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