Save the Bunnies!

How college administrators can curb attrition, save money—and, oh yes, help students.

Don’t drown them.


Last week, Mount St. Mary’s University President Simon Newman made headlines when he deployed an inapt metaphor for dealing with struggling first-year students: “This is hard for you because you think of the students as cuddly bunnies, but you can’t,” he reportedly told faculty members. “You just have to drown the bunnies,” he continued. “Put a Glock to their heads.”

He didn’t actually want to murder any of his own institution’s students. But he did want to encourage any first-years who showed signs of struggling to drop out early, before their numbers counted against the university’s retention rate. In emails leaked to the student newspaper, Newman wrote: “My short term goal is to have 20-25 people leave by the 25th [of September]. This one thing will boost our retention 4-5%.”

Newman, a British-born former private equity manager and CEO whose CV includes a stint at Bain, has since apologized via the Washington Post for swearing so much, among other things. His vernacular was definitely more old-school boardroom than new-school classroom, but we should also recognize that he is trying to deal with a real problem. That problem isn’t just attrition, but attrition later in the semester, when you have to report those numbers—and, not coincidentally, when it’s too late for the student to get a substantial tuition refund and she’s instead on the hook for all those loans.

Newman’s clunkers are also part of a larger—and important—conversation about the best ways to help struggling freshmen. Amazingly enough, there are some cost-effective and relatively easy solutions to be implemented here—solutions that treat “force the student out” as a last resort.

First, and this is the most important of all possible suggestions: Don’t accept many marginal students in the first place. The admissions committee of any given institution is supposed to know exactly what it takes to succeed there—so if a student’s application isn’t strong enough to give her a probable chance of earning a baccalaureate from the 22nd-best regional university in the Northern United States within five years, reject that application. If an institution isn’t competitive enough to ensure a mostly strong freshman class, then that is a larger systemic problem that no amount of bunny-drowning can alleviate.

But why do so many students who are a poor fit for college end up miserable freshmen? Perhaps well-meaning intellectuals and politicians should stop telling young people they “need” a four-year degree and employers who have no business requiring one should stop doing so. We should reaffirm the worth of an associate’s degree or certification in many fields, with a full cultural shift away from viewing a bachelor’s degree as vocational training, which it does both expensively and poorly. (Mount St. Mary’s, for what it’s worth, is a Catholic university rooted in a liberal-arts tradition that does not seem to follow the corporate-university model—yet.)

But what about those poor drowning bunnies who have already matriculated? They don’t have time to wait for a national attitude adjustment, although there is still hope on the institutional level. One way to keep freshmen from dropping out before their first Thanksgiving is to require a special first-year core curriculum that is equal parts introduction to some important canon (I prefer the humanistic one) and college survival kit. Each assignment can contain both an intellectual takeaway and a crash course on how to complete it: how to use online databases and the library, what academic writing looks like, how to structure an argument, even how to manage time. Like many universities, Mount St. Mary’s already has something exactly like this in place—so how about working with the faculty to strengthen it, instead of blaming them and their “furor” for Newman’s nefarious plans, as the board of Mount St. Mary’s apparently has? (“We found incontrovertible evidence of the existence of an organized, small group of faculty and recent alums working to undermine and ultimately cause the exit of President Newman,” wrote the board’s president, John E. Coyne, in a statement.)

There are myriad ways for universities to keep track of and assist at-risk first-years that don’t involve their allegorical murder. Mount St. Mary’s already has a few of them in place, such as peer mentors. Faculty mentors—matched with students according to background and interests, perhaps—are another idea. So are study groups created through official channels; i.e., the student doesn’t have to take any initiative (often the students who need this kind of intervention the most are the ones who seek it out the least). Universities can also offer nonacademic incentives (such as “campus cash”) to visit the tutoring center a certain amount of times in one’s first semester.

Yet I don’t think that Simon Newman really wants to hear any of this (or, you know, strengthen his institution’s existing academic resources). What Newman clearly wants is for Mount St. Mary’s University to look better on paper. The way he’s chosen to go about it—in the parlance of the industry he left to pursue the hot new corporatized university model—is to cook the books. I don’t blame the “small” group of faculty and alumni for objecting to this kind of “positive change,” as Coyne described it in the statement from the board that backed Newman after Bunnygate. (The group was also furious that some of the “positive change” involved killing retiree health benefits for emeritus faculty, a cost-cutting move straight out of Dickens.)

And by the way: Mount St. Mary’s University already has a perfectly fine retention rate, one 11 percentage points higher than the national average and surely befitting the 22nd-best regional university in the North. If Newman wants a better bottom line, then he should try to strengthen his institution’s academics (or, if we’re being cynical, build a water park). I realize that’s not the kind of bleeding-edge rebranding they do at Bain, but he should give it a shot. Just not with a Glock.