Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Drowning Bunnies

There was an interesting article in the Washington Post today about a new college president, brought in from the private sector to help a college flourish, who spoke on increasing retention/graduation rates.  In an article provocatively titled "University President Allegedly Say Struggling Freshman are Bunnies that Should be Drowned" (okay, it got my attention), Susan Svruiga writes:

Amid a conversation about student retention this fall, the president of Mount St. Mary’s University told some professors that they need to stop thinking of freshmen as “cuddly bunnies,” and said: “You just have to drown the bunnies … put a Glock to their heads.”

Simon Newman was quoted in the campus newspaper, The Mountain Echo, on Tuesday, in a special edition that reported the university’s president had pushed a plan to improve retention rates by dismissing 20 to 25 freshmen judged unlikely to succeed early in the academic year. Removing students who are more likely to drop out could hypothetically lead to an improvement in a school’s federal retention data; the deadline for submitting enrollment data is in late September.

Newman, a private-equity chief executive officer and entrepreneur who was appointed president of the private university in Emmitsburg, Md., in 2015, said Tuesday that there are some accurate facts in the Echo story, but “the overall tone of the thing is highly inaccurate.”

Oy.  I don't know what President Newman's issue is that he talks about drowning and shooting bunnies, but I since I don't know him --and would like to keep it that way-- I'm going to refrain from commenting on the judgment of the president of a religious educational institution who uses such harsh, violent, and vivid metaphors for talking about those he's entrusted to educate.  

So I'm not sure this is a psychiatric issue,  but I want to comment on the wisdom of weeding out freshmen who are doing poorly in their first month of college.  If one could tell within weeks of their arrival on campus who is definitely not going to make it to graduation, then I would agree with Dr. Newman's concept, but let me use my own language.  If you know for sure that someone is not going to be able to graduate from college, then you would do them the kindest service by not accepting them into your university to begin with.  If you did make a mistake and accept someone who obviously cannot succeed, then it may be best to help them exit early.  College is not for everyone, and if you're never going to graduate, then it may be better to forgo the expense, the debt, the years of struggle and discouragement, the lost income and lost opportunities to master other skills.  Of course, this could be wrong; someone who never graduates may learn incredibly useful things -- both in classes and in the struggle-- and may form invaluable friendships and networks.  Bill Gates didn't graduate from Harvard. Steve Jobs dropped out of Reed.  They did okay without the sheepskin.

Even if it's not all about the diploma, the fact is that the first semester of college is a very stressful time.  Teenagers are leaving home for the first time, they have to wake up and get to class without alarm-clock Mom, perhaps after late nights up using their newfound freedom to discover substances or the opposite sex.  They may not have a sense of how much they need to study, and some may be up far too late pounding at the books, or simply worrying.  Others have to work to get all the bills paid, and figuring out the work/college/social aspects of school may be quite hard.  Some college freshmen get homesick.  Some become ill with serious psychiatric disorders.  But even the smartest, healthiest, and most driven of students may struggle that first semester in college.  Since college is about educating people, it does seem that some tolerance of these difficulties is needed.  From what I can tell,  the predictive value of that first semester is not terribly good.  I've heard stories of kids who've had any number of  issues and terrible grades, who have then gone on to do well.  It may not have been a smooth ride, but it was one that got finished.  

I vote for coddling the bunnies for a while, at least while they get through the transition of separating from their families and figuring out their new environments and its demands.   And you know, I don't think glocks are the answer to very much, and I'm all for a kinder, gentler world.    

1 comment:

Unknown said...

I notice that you talk in absolutes, ("definitely not going to make it" etc) while the justification for his position talks in probabilities ("more likely to drop out").

Within the first few weeks you often have a pretty good idea who's going to crash and burn. You talk about a handful of anecdotes of people who've gone on to do ok but the vast majority are not those few. Similarly Steve Jobs and Bill Gates are not representative. They didn't drop out due to struggling with anything.

And many of those people who are obviously never going to graduate get strung along for years, wasting time, money and life.

If a hundred people suffer that so that your single fluffy bunny can pull themselves together and succeed do you just choose to ignore what happened to the hundred and pretend that the 1 is the only person who matters?

What you paint as kind I see as needlessly cruel.