Half of the pleasure of reading the Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Ed lies in the occasional realization that some academic somewhere has done some spectacularly stupid thing and it wasn't me.
I had that experience this morning on reading Inside Higher Ed's report on this spiffy new method to improve retention at Mount St. Mary's University in Maryland (read it here). The logic is either brilliant or twisted or brilliantly twisted: High retention numbers make colleges look good in rankings, but students who drop out before the official census date don't affect retention numbers; therefore, colleges should quickly identify at-risk students and encourage them to drop out within the first two weeks of the semester, before the official census date, thus weeding out students in a way that makes the college look as if it's doing a great job holding on to students. Neat trick, that.
Among the many flaws in this argument, I will mention only two: first, lots of students get a slow start but later pull things together, but this plan would flush those students out of the system before they got a chance to prove themselves; and second, a far more efficient method of flushing woefully underprepared students out of the system is not to admit them in the first place.
But the plan itself is not the most compelling part of the article. Not at all. What everyone will be talking about is the extremely vivid metaphor employed by Simon Newman, the president of Mount St. Mary's--or I guess I should say allegedly employed because he says he doesn't remember making the statement in question, which is really unfortunate because I doubt that he'll ever escape its taint. Speaking to faculty members who criticized the new retention plan, he (allegedly!) said, "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."
Now I'm a huge fan of vivid metaphors but this one inspires a few questions:
Does anyone really look out over that vast sea of sleepy faces on the first day of class and think cuddly bunnies? If animal metaphors are called for, why not prickly porcupines or chattering chipmunks or whining weasels?
What's the best way to weed out a weasel, silence a chipmunk, or propel a porcupine from the premises? Drowning, shooting, or something entirely different?
Once you've drowned the bunnies, what's the point of putting a Glock to their heads? Do you drown them first and then shoot them or the other way around?
I'm sure someone out there is drafting a report on Best Practices in Drowning and/or Shooting Cuddly Bunnies in Order to Improve Retention, but if so, I don't want to read it. I'm too busy trying to work with my wriggling menagerie so that they can stay in school and show what they're capable of doing--and if they can't, let them go drown themselves in a sea of McDonald's French-fry orders. I'm not going to be the one pulling the trigger.