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When a mission-driven organization forgets about mission

When a mission-driven organization forgets about mission

Seamus Carey, president of Transylvania University, draws some lessons from what happened at Mount Saint Mary’s University in Maryland when the board decided to hire a person from the business world as president and then fired him on February 29.

Carey reflects on what happens when a mission-driven organization forgets about mission.

Inside Higher Education:

Mr. Newman’s off-color remarks were in reference to student retention numbers. He wanted to improve the university’s metrics by convincing students who were unlikely to persist there to leave before they would count in the institution’s retention report. If a college or university’s retention statistics improve, the thinking goes, its rankings might also improve. A better ranking might attract more students.

Newman’s approach to managing an institution whose purpose is to transform lives by building confidence, expanding imaginations and developing character is indicative of a disturbing trend in higher education. The attempt to transfer yardsticks devised in the business community to educational institutions is doomed to fail. Newman’s colorful language may have accelerated his demise, but his attempt to boost retention numbers by prioritizing rankings over the substantive mission of the institution was bad business. By reducing students to statistics, the purpose of the institution’s existence was lost.

I know of no leader in higher education who does not understand and appreciate the need for accountability. We all recognize the economic challenges of higher education. And we are searching for ways to reduce costs and maximize revenues. But those goals are the by-products of the overarching goods to which we aspire. We exist to educate human beings. This process, and the outcomes we produce, cannot be reduced to metrics relating to student wages two years after graduation. It is not that metrics are irrelevant, but we must find the right ones and use them in their proper place. They cannot supplant the reason we exist.

Business models that make achieving certain numbers the top priority fail to understand that students are complex beings who develop at different times along different trajectories. They respond to different teachers for different reasons and sometimes suddenly discover a new interest, a new passion and new abilities that transform their lives.


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Helen Kromm

The real heroes here are the student journalists. The original article in the Mountain Echo is here:

Newman engaged in conduct that was deceitful and reprehensible. The student “survey” he advocated was beyond the pale. His comments were disgusting.

Had it not been for the student journalists, Newman would in all probability still be in charge of this institution. The job they performed here was remarkable.

That job is still not complete. As long as John Coyne remains as Chair of the Board of Trustees, their job is unfinished. Coyne’s response in the Mountain Echo is here:

My husband and I both attended the Mount. These activities are so out of character with our experiences in this remarkable place. It’s shocking in so many ways.

I am so proud of these student reporters. Against the odds, and in the face of extraordinary pressure, they brought this story out. Once published, they weathered the storm.

An earlier comment states that we should avoid generalizations when it comes to those with a business background leading universities. I think it’s important to note that in this case, neither Newman or Coyne have any experience as educators. None. The two most important figures, and those with the most power to affect policy, had absolutely no experience in the field of education.

I don’t like generalizations either. Nor would I discount the value of a business background in an educational setting. Having said that, does it make any sense at all that he two most powerful and prominent figures within a university had absolutely no background or experience in the field of education?

Paul Woodrum

Jay, my point was a forced resignation = being fired.
A nastier process. Same result. Unfortunately, at GTS the faculty was targeted and not the dean.

Diana Wilcox

As a former business executive, I think we need to stop making generalizations. There are good folks in business and in the church, and there are some that…well, maybe aren’t in the role that is best for all concerned. I find that my experience in the corporate world is invaluable to me as a rector, but it is not the only experience from which I draw. I don’t know what happened in this situation, so I make no comments about that, but let’s not assume that people from the business sector cannot lead non-profits, universities, governments, etc. Everyone and every position is unique. It is all about finding the right fit for both the person and the institution.

Chris Hamby

This makes me really proud to be an alum of Transylvania University. The previous president treated Transy like a business. Our new president understands the bigger mission.

Margaret Shannon

As a fellow alumna of Transylvania University (founded in 1780) and a fourth-generation graduate, I am delighted to see President Carey’s article shared widely. the previous president (ex-Goldman Sachs), who looked too good to be true in paper, was an unmitigated disaster in person. He did not understand collegiality, academic freedom, or women in positions of authority. His removal took three long years, and decimated morale in the campus. President Carey seems to be making progress in healing the divisions.

Paul Woodrum

Semantics. Same result. Reminds me of all those professors at General Theological Seminary who weren’t fired either. Their letter of concern for the mission of the seminary was quickly interpreted as a resignation thereby meeting the new dean’s goal of reducing expenses to pay off debt.

Jay Croft

No. At Mount St. Mary’s, the pressure was on the President to resign. At GTS, the pressure was on the faculty to get out, particularly the tenured faculty.

I live in the same county as MSM and followed the news quite closely.

By the way, this week marks the 28th anniversary of Deaf President Now at Gallaudet University in DC. Students, alumni, and faculty refused to accept the Board of Trustees’ rubber-stamp choice of yet another hearing person as its president. (The BOT was mostly hearing persons at that time.)

Was it coincidental that the Gospel reading for Sunday, March 6, 1988 was about Jesus throwing the money changers out of the temple?

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