The Loyalty Problem: Fundamental Ethics Confusion at Mount St. Mary’s University

Mt st mary

Loyalty is an ethical virtue; the whole concept of duty often depends on it. Loyalty is also the most dangerous of all ethical principles. Misapplied, misinterpreted, followed blindly or carried to extremes, it can lead to absolute wrong. A current controversy at Maryland’s Mount St. Mary’s University illustrates how.

A reliable source obtained information that the school’s president, Simon Newman had argued that the school needed to be ruthless in maintaining high standards by getting rid of less competitive students, and had done so by telling colleagues opposing him, “This is hard for you because you think of the students as cuddly bunnies, but you can’t. You just have to drown the bunnies…Put a Glock to their heads.”

The student newspaper reported the conversation, which Newman hasn’t denied, and it was duly published in The Mountain Echo, the student newspaper.

Shortly after the “scoop,” The Mountain Echo’s faculty advisor Ed Egan was fired by Newman for violating the “code of conduct and acceptable use policies.” During the same period in which Egan was fired,  Newman did a Michael Corleone on some other “disloyal” lieutenants.” Thane Naberhaus, an associate professor of philosophy, was dismissed after criticizing Newman’s policies, and David Rehm, was stripped of his role as provost after questioning university policies.

The dismissal letter to Naberhaus, signed by Newman, said “As an employee of Mount St. Mary’s University, you owe a duty of loyalty to this university and to act in a manner consistent with the duty. However, your recent actions, in my opinion and that of others, have violated that duty and clearly justify your termination.”  Ed Egan says that he was also told that he had been “disloyal.”

I can’t speak to the dismissals of the other employees, but in the case of Egan, his loyalty was where it should be. President Newman doesn’t understand his own job, or the ethical principles applicable in academia.

One of the most frequent and difficult questions in legal ethics is “who is the client?” This issue usually arises in the context of organizational representation. A lawyer is bound to be loyal to his or her clients. Is the organization’s lawyer supposed to be loyal to the client organization’s board, CEO, Chairman, general counsel, or whoever hired him?  For government attorneys, this is the Number One ethics issue. For example <cough>, is the U.S. Attorney General bound to be loyal to the President, the Democratic Party, or the Democratic Party’s struggling heir apparent who appears to have violated important national security laws?

It’s a trick question: the AG is ethically required to do what is in the best interests of the United States of America and its citizens, by enforcing the law vigorously, fairly and objectively without regard for partisan or personal loyalties. Somebody tell Loretta Lynch.

In the Mount St. Mary’s  case, the president, whose background is corporate management, has misunderstood what loyalty requires from a faculty advisor to a newspaper. The job of that advisor is to teach journalism ethics, meaning courage, integrity, competence, and independence. The only questions to be asked regarding the story in question were…

1. Is it accurate?

2. Is it newsworthy?

3. Is it something that the readership would want to know?

4. Was the information obtained legally and ethically? (In a commercial newspaper, this question is usually deemed irrelevant. Sometimes it is, but not always.)

“Will the story  embarrass the president?” is not on the list, nor should it be.

Ed Egan’s duty of loyalty was to the university itself, and meant upholding the principles of academic freedom and freedom of speech, which any university is itself obligated to teach and uphold. His loyalty to the president only extends to conduct that is in the school’s best interest. In this case, that means choosing his duty to the students, the newspaper, journalism, education, freedom of the press and freedom of speech over the well-being, hurt feelings, embarrassment or anything else affecting Simon Newman personally.

It was unethical, and indeed ethically ignorant, for Newman to fire him.

What none of the reports on this incident mention is that the controversy over Newman’s remarks is pure political correctness, and nothing more. If Newman was adept at his job, he should have explained this, rather than acting like Richard Nixon in the Saturday Night Massacre. He is the president of a university, which means he should recognize a “teachable moment” when it’s sitting on his nose.

Okay, so he referred to students as “bunnies’ in a private meeting, and used a violent metaphor. Be still my beating heart—so what?  Newman was arguing for higher standards, and should have immediately defended that extraordinarily defensible objective. He should have also said, “Stop having the vapours over vivid speech, you weenies. Grow up. This is the kind of nonsense that is getting Donald Trump followers.”

Simon Newman, however, decided to punish an employee for doing his job correctly and understanding where his loyalties belonged, thus breaching Newman’s ethical duty not to embarrass Mount St. Mary’s University.

______________________

Pointer and Source: Res Ipsa Loquitur

Facts: NYT

 

 

16 thoughts on “The Loyalty Problem: Fundamental Ethics Confusion at Mount St. Mary’s University

  1. I’m going to add a point you missed here, Jack: The first employee to be fired wasn’t just a professor or an advisor — he was tenured.

    Firing him like that is a violation of an absurdly large number of academic principles… and, quite likely, contractual ones as well. You simply do not fire a tenured professor without due process.

    • I wonder if the fact that Newman was educated in Britain (the British don’t have tenured professors as the US knows tenure) was a factor in this. Thinking of it, at a British university Newman’s sackings would not be all that remarkable, faculty employment is at the whim of administration and new administrations usually engage in a firing spree. I suspect this is more a clash of UK university style versus US university style than the business/academia style it is being painted as.

      This should not be read to justify Newman’s actions or to imply that they are ethical. MSMU is a US academic institution and US academic norms apply, the role of universities in European society is not the same as the role of universities in US society and fitting a US university like MSMU in the European mold would turn it into a mediocre trade school, something probably not in the best interest of a US university.

  2. Alexander is correct. The faculty member was tenured and deserved due process. Overall, Newman’s actions are unethical and tyrannical.

    Also, The new president violated the school’s mission statement, which says, “Mount St. Mary’s is a Catholic university committed to education in the service of truth; we seek to cultivate a community of learners formed by faith, engaged in discovery, and empowered for leadership in the Church, the professions, and the world.” Newman had to know that this is a liberal arts Catholic university.

    While not being an academic is not required to be a university president, understanding the nature and culture of the university is vital. Newman came from the private sector where he started his career in consulting working with Bain & Co and LEK Consulting where he managed the media and entertainment practice working with clients such as Warner Bros., Disney, and Universal Studios. Those are admirable qualifications for a CEO of a multinational enterprise. The university, especially a Catholic university, is a whole different environment, and should not be run with the same kill-or-be-killed instincts. The university is there to encourage questions, soul-searching, and struggling with broader philosophical issues. That is where scientists get to think about dark matter, and gravitational waves. That is where ethicists get to think about questions of loyalty and the Golden Rule.

    jvb

  3. From your comment on journalism Jack:
    ” Is it something that the readership would want to know?”

    Want or NEED perhaps? Sometimes we need to know things that we would rather not know. In that case it seems to me the news media should tell us, even to their peril.

    The staff management aspects are a little troubling here of course and I foresee an unfair dismissal case or three – and I’m not even an ambulance chasing lawyer!

    Beyond that, doesn’t: “Newman had argued that the school needed to be ruthless in maintaining high standards by getting rid of less competitive students” mean that the School President is telling academic staff that they must apply rigorous academic standards when assessing students and that they should not be handing out passes to students who do not deserve them? Surely this is a fairly ethical position for the School President to hold and perhaps he is quite justified in sacking any staff member who, unethically, disagrees with him?

    • If he had used that as his reason rather than loyalty, I’d be somewhat sympathetic, although I would still have issues with the lack of due process.

    • 1. In this case the distinction is irrelevant:students want and need to know if they are at risk of being kicked out of school.
      2. Yes. As I said, his position is nothing to run from, so why is he firing people for exposing it?
      3. When is it unethical to disagree with the boss?

      • I read that as their position was unethical by nature, not because they happened to disagree with him. Perhaps I’m being overly charitable.

  4. “Who is the client?” “To whom or what do you owe loyalty?” Good questions. I think Newman has an unrealistic view of himself and his position, and his actions on that basis are tyrannical. Ask him who his favorite leaders are… Caligula? Stalin? Hitler? Henry VIII? He’s aspiring to something, but I don’t know what.

  5. I might ask, in passing, to just whom is President Newman himself responsible to? A board of regents? The bishop of the local diocese? The Vatican itself? Who ultimately decides what “loyalty” actually means and in regards to what?

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