By Michelle Adams, Staff Writer

Here's the story...

Mount St. Mary’s University, a small, Roman Catholic university in Emmitsburg, Md., is getting national news coverage after its president, Simon Newman, announced a controversial student-retention plan that resulted in the firing of two esteemed professors and the threat of expulsion for a handful of student journalists.

Newman planned to improve federal student retention rates (a common statistic that universities aim to improve) by encouraging lower performing students to drop out before the statistics were taken by the government. 

President Newman infamously responded by asking faculty members to reconsider, saying, “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.” 

These details were released first in Mount St. Mary’s student newspaper, The Mountain Echo – but when the news of the controversy went viral, administration began to stifle the student voice. 

They started by firing the student paper’s faculty advisor, a law professor and former trustee. The administration then threatened on social media to suspend or even expel the paper’s student staff “for having dared sullied the reputation of Mount St. Mary’s University by publishing previously tight-lipped information,” though many argued that students at the college deserved to know.

The Mount St. Mary’s Board of Trustees, represented by John Coyne III, further scolded the news staff, calling the revealing article “disturbing and inflammatory.

“It is also the product of a disgruntled employee and the creative and destructive imagination of a student being spoon-fed his information,” Coyne said, defaming the reputation of student journalists at Mount St. Mary’s and across the country. Further, he accused the paper of, “render[ing] incalculable damage to the reputation of [Mount St. Mary’s] University and its institutional integrity.”

While he, the other trustees, and the administration of the university may feel otherwise, the dedication of these student journalists will prove invaluable to their future careers.

Let’s take a look at what they accomplished, and how you can do the same for yourself.

Making A Difference In Their School

The Mountain Echo’s managing editor, Ryan Golden, posed the questions, “why would a student newspaper at a small, close-knit Catholic university dare to publish this report? Why place the spotlight on the words and deeds of the highest officials within the university?” His answer was simple: they could not “neglect the fact that university leaders make important and often divisive decisions that affect the lives of students, faculty, staff, and other community members.” He feels that it is the student journalist’s duty to expose these decisions “for better or worse” – and that is what they did.

Even before the news of this scandal went viral, the release of the information in a special edition of their paper inspired change on their campus.

After the publication, administrators began publicly defending their actions, suggesting that the article presented “an inaccurate portrayal of the goals and objectives of the Retention Program that President Newman sought to introduce.” They then began to explain their program proposals, tweaking them to increase approval from the campus community. The administrators' actions could not be undone, however, and on March 1, President Newman announced his resignation.

The student journalists noticed a major issue in their university’s policy, and took action to force explanation from those in charge. 

The same can be done on your campus. Even if you are not involved with your university’s student newspaper, you can be aware of university happenings by following campus publications and being involved in campus political life. If you notice that something doesn’t seem quite right, that’s a sign to take action! Write a letter to your student newspaper’s editor, or contact those in charge directly. Don’t be afraid to ask questions and stay involved in campus policies – this is where your tuition dollars are going!

Networking

The national news coverage that their story received earned the Mountain Echo editors key networking opportunities that will further their careers in journalism.

Wall Street Journal staff reporter John W. Miller noticed the students’ treatment of the controversial issue, and commended the staff in a letter to the editor, “for [their] reporting on President Newman’s plan to expel freshmen deemed unlikely to survive until graduation.” 

In addition to appearing in the Wall Street Journal, The Mountain Echo and its staff were featured in The Washington Post, Inside Higher Ed, and Frederick News Post, among others.

Think of the networking opportunities that have been presented to these students! This kind of exposure will prove beneficial to the students’ careers, as they apply for jobs at these nationally ranked news outlets. It will look great on the journalists’ résumés to have these sources reference their reporting. They were even presented with opportunities to be interviewed by these stations, getting their foot in the door, so they can be recognized in the future.

Many colleges work to help their students network in their fields of interest, but take advantage of opportunities to expose yourself more to your future employers by taking risks, like the students at Mount St. Mary’s did. Perhaps contacting prospective future companies in college is the way to get your name out. Maybe your industry works with conferences, and attending one of these would kick-start your career. See what you can do to network, and don’t be afraid to jump in with both feet. As all entrepreneurs know, with the greatest risks come the greatest rewards.

Starting A Nationwide Movement

Students, teachers, and industry professionals across the country took this scandal as a chance to start a movement to reinstate the professor’s employment and protect the freedom of the press on college campuses.

With the major news outlets reporting on these issues, support for the causes skyrocketed. Numerous petitions, articles, and letters to the editor have been published arguing for professor and student rights – and some have even been successful.

The fired professors are rumored to have been offered their jobs back. Famous reporters are defending the students’ right to print what they please. The student journalists at Mount St. Mary’s University have inspired a controversy across the country that could change the way we see college newspapers and the role of the press in uncovering the truth. 

Millennials everywhere can learn from the courage of these students, and use their actions to guide their own initiatives in making a difference in the futures of themselves and their universities. Taking risks like these can certainly have repercussions, as the student journalists awaiting punishment know, but the permanent payoff in the end is sometimes worth the temporary consequences.

So what will you do to make change happen on your campus? 

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