Blogs > Liberty and Power > Another Anniversary at the University of Southern Mississippi

Aug 8, 2005 5:03 pm


Another Anniversary at the University of Southern Mississippi



One year ago, on March 5, 2004, Shelby Thames, the president of the University of Southern Mississippi, called Frank Glamser, a tenured professor of Sociology, and Gary Stringer, a tenured professor of English, into his office and told them that they were fired. While Thames was berating them, locksmiths, under escort from the campus police, came and changed the locks on their office doors.

Because March 5 is on a weekend this year, the sad event won't be commemorated on campus until Monday.

USM is still reeling from the loss of two major contributors on the faculty. But Thames wanted much more than that. He imagined that the firings would terrify every potential critic into silence and guarantee him control over USM so long as he was still"having fun." Instead, Thames brought the scope and intensity of media attention to USM that is the worst enemy of bullying, incompetent micomanagers. And his subsequent acts of viciousness and recklessness have insured that though the media attention might waver, it would keep returning, in more and more concentrated forms.

Frank Glamser is now teaching at Tulane's satellite campus on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, and enjoying his return to the classroom. Gary Stringer and his Donne Variorum Project were welcomed by Texas A&M; the annual John Donne conference, which he had hosted at USM for 19 years, was recently held at LSU in Baton Rouge. Under the terms of the settlement that the Mississippi Institutions of Higher Learning Board imposed last April 28, Glamser and Stringer will continue to draw their USM salaries as" consultants" for another year. Meanwhile, the administrator whose honor Thames claimed to be defending against two professors who dared to point out a misrepresentation on her vita is no longer at USM; once widely viewed as Thames' heir apparent, Angie Dvorak departed from the university payroll on January 1.

After a solid year of viciousness and recklessness, which has been thoroughly documented here at Liberty and Power, the Thames regime finally looks to be on the ropes.

On Wednesday of this week, a USM staff meeting was held to rally support for Thames and find ways to improve his irreversibly tarnished public image. Of course Thames' press secretary, Lisa Mader, was in the room. (Though persistent but still unconfirmed rumors have her about to leave USM for a new job in Jackson.) What will stick in the mind of everyone who attended was a statement by Thames' chief enforcer and man of many administrative titles, Ken Malone:

Before this is all over I want to see Kevin Walters in a public lynching.

More than one person who attended the meeting has reported the above quotation, but Malone has apparently not yet been confronted by a reporter from the print media and asked to verify it. It is to be hoped that journalists from the Jackson Clarion-Ledger and the Hattiesburg American will not leave him in peace until he owns up to his remark or issues a convincing denial. For it may be the single event that draws concentrated attention to the events at USM from newspapers all across the United States.

What has Kevin Walters of the Hattiesburg American done, to elicit such venom? Walters has merely done what reporters are supposed to do--he has kept asking questions and stayed on the story. His coverage of events at USM has at no point been slanted against the administration. In fact, the American has a policy of never using anonymous sources (how far would Woodward and Bernstein have gotten, if that had been the house rule at the Washington Post?). Consequently, the average Walters article about USM quotes more proponents than detractors of the Thames administration. (It's because Thames and his supporters keep indicting themselves with their own words that most of Walters' articles have hurt the administration.)

What's more, Thames and crew are up to far more mischief than a lone reporter could ever expose. For instance, American has yet to cover the decline and fall of USM's Nursing program. Under Thames, a program that long trained a substantial share of the nurses in Mississippi has lost most of its senior professors, and the percentage of its recent graduates who passed the national board exam has dipped below 75%; another year of that, and the program will have to be stripped of its accreditation by, of all agencies, the Mississippi IHL Board. In this particular case, it appears that no story has run because the remaining nursing professors are too fearful of Thamesian reprisals to allow themselves to be quoted. But then again, the story could have been held off because so many other things are collapsing at USM, and there are only so many column inches to put the stories in.

Malone allegedly called for Walters' lynching at a moment when his own power still seemed to be expanding. At the end of last week, after being handed control of USM's Continuing Education office, he made a surprise announcement that he was closing it, and reassigning the staff people who had worked there. It could be that other institutional arrangements would serve online courses and independent studies as well as the central CE office did, even better. But it is a major stretch to assume that Ken Malone is interested in seeing that these institutional needs are efficently served. And any reorganization should have been carried out over the summer. Instead, the ever"impatient" Malone has thrown every academic department that relies on the CE office into turmoil and chaos.

But Malone is being thwarted in his efforts to demolish the entire USM College of Business and replace it with an entity centered on his Department of Economic Development. Dean Harold Doty, the recipient of the Black Friday memo, has made clear that he is just beginning to fight him. The College of Business just received a $1 million pledge from Mississippi businessman Max Draughn to support a pharmaceutical marketing program. It is too bad that Malone's comments about that event were not made in front of a public meeting. And how about Shelby Thames, who cannot fire Doty after interim IHL Commissioner Richard Crofts intervened on Doty's side and ordered Thames to retract the Black Friday memo? Thames did not attend the ceremony announcing the gift; neither did anyone else from his upper administration. On-campus sources say that Thames wants to reassign the college's chief fundraiser, in the hope of preventing future donations. Previously, on Wednesday, Doty publicly announced a Center for Economic Education in his college; Malone could not have been pleased with that move either, as he had been claiming economic education as his own turf.

If Malone really said what he is reported to have said, he is not merely a bad administrator, an unqualified professor, and a sycophant of one of the worst university presidents in American history. He is a thug without portfolio. And national media attention to a Mississippi university administrator who calls for lynching a reporter will set the state's image back at least half a century.

Under President Dave Beckett the USM Faculty Senate has consistently refused to take any action against Malone. But at yesterday's monthly meeting (it's hard to keep track, after all the emergency get-togethers), the Senate ordered an evaluation by the faculty of Malone performance as Chief Operating Officer at USM's Gulf Park satellite campus. Though very mild under the circumstances, this is a welcome step. (In fact, Malone was scheduled to appear before the Senate to address questions about his decision to close the Continuing Education office--and ducked out. Could this have been because Kevin Walters attends every Senate meeting?)

USM's Graduate Council, which reviews the credentials of graduate faculty members, has also announced a new policy of rechecking the credentials of faculty members who move to new programs or to different colleges. Since Malone has steered his Economic Development program out of the College of Business into the Colleges of Science and Technology and Arts and Letters, he will be due for review right away. And this time the Graduate Council will not believe false statements from deans or from the Provost about Malone's faculty status or his qualifications to teach Finance courses.

A further mark of desperation on the Thamesian side is a convocation that his supporters in the Hattiesburg business community have called for Thursday March 10, at the local Coca-Cola bottling plant. According to Hattiesburg's scrappy weekly, the Independent, which broke the story, the hosts will be

  • Brad Brian (Hattiesburg Coca-Cola)
  • Bobby Dews (Dews Foundry)
  • Bonnie Drews (Republican party activist)
  • Richard Drews (Dentist)
  • Gwen James (Coldwell Banker Don Nace Realty)
  • Richard Jones (Hattiesburg Area Development Partnership)
  • Jan Lacy (Copy Cats Printing)
  • Bob Mixon (Courtesy Ford)
  • Carl Nicholson (Nicholson & Company, Accountants; former member of the IHL Board)
  • Doug Rouse (Southern Bone & Joint Clinic Specialists)
  • Lawrence Warren (Warren Paving)

The Independent (unfortunately not available online) noted that"The invitation to Drews to host the meeting was extended by Lisa Mader ..." which means that it was orchestrated from within the USM administration. The"... true purpose of the meeting is to support extension of Dr. Thames' contract when it comes up for renewal in 2006."

And here is the new rallying point for those who move and shake, wheel and deal, and want to keep Thames in power."The issue, she [Bonnie Drews] continued, is whether USM will continue as a primarily liberal arts university or whether it will focus on technology."

Since the Mississippi state university system is utterly incapable of making another MIT or Caltech, even it threw its entire annual state appropriation behind a single institution, the only university in the system with a substantial Engineering presence is called Mississippi State, and the IHL Board is about to shut down USM's small Masters program in physics, despite the grants that the department pulls in, what this call really amounts to is dropping USM down to a big trade school, or even a pumped-up community college.

It is not clear how many of Thames' backers in the Hattiesburg-area establishment understand what the press to"focus on technology" truly means. One who probably does is Carl Nicholson, a graduate of Mississippi State who was instrumental in putting Thames on the throne when he served on the IHL Board. Those affiliated with the Area Development Partnership (whose current President happens to be named Angie Dvorak) might at least have a vague idea.

The convocation of local Thames supporters, now expected to draw at least 250 people, was a major topic of discussion at yesterday's monthly meeting of the USM Faculty Senate. Kevin Walters' article is worth reading just for the heated dialogue that it captures, about the Thames administration's role in organizing the convocation. Despite denials that Thames plans to attend the meeting, his fingerprints are all over it.

Because of that body's near-absolute power over USM, the question, as always, is: what is the IHL Board going to do? Probably everyone on the list of organizers has exerted influence with the Board on Thames' behalf, if only to secure his coronation in 2002. But in the past the wires were pulled quietly, without eliciting attention from the media. This time around, the convocation itself will be closed to reporters, but the newspapers will be monitoring events closely. Not only are members of the Hattiesburg establishment openly seeking to manipulate the Board, under circumstances that will lead to media inquiries into their financial dealings with USM under the Thames administration. But one of the most rabid members of the Board's pro-Thames faction, Scott Ross, was directly implicated in the convocation plans by the Independent. Such overt political involvement, in an effort to keep Thames in power, can only wreak further damage on the Board's reputation. And the Board has already been badly hurt by the repeated failures of the Thames regime and the foot-in-mouth proclivities of its current president (and Thames cheerleader) Roy Klumb.

Now, the Board could end up spliting the difference, in a way that would leave Thames devastated, but would satisfy the true agenda of more than one of his supporters. It could give Thames his walking papers, and thank him for being a useful idiot, while ratifying the dirty work that he has done, by announcing that USM will no longer be permitted to be a reasearch-oriented university. Citing Thames' depredations as a fait accompli that cannot be repaired under present state budget constraints, the Board could officially define USM as a trade school or a pumped-up community college. But the infighting has grown so fierce that the Board seems unlikely to reach such a nastily judicious outcome.

The likely alternatives boil down to two.

The Board may expand the authority of the IHL Commissioner, who would demand regular reports on accreditation, would review university presidents annually, and would get the power to fire them. (At a recent retreat, the Board heard from Richard Crofts' counterpart in the Georgia state system, who has such powers and was recommending that the Board emulate the Georgia model.) The faction that wants a stronger commissioner is inclined to be anti-Thames, if only because of the extra burdens that his misrule has piled on the Board. So a strengthening of the Commissioner's position would almost certainly be accompanied by Thames' immediate removal, or the nonrenewal of his contract past May 2006.

Not terribly coincidentally, the most recent subject of the Clarion- Ledger's regular Sunday interview series was Richard Crofts.

Crofts speaks in the usual carefully measured words of an executive, which means that much of his interview is made up out of customary platitudes. Nonetheless, several passages stand out amongst the low-bandwidth communication.

First, he refers to his background as a professor--something that Thames, who encourages his followers to run down professors as a class, rarely does.

I am especially grateful for the 11 years I spent as a faculty member before I went into administration. That experience has ensured that as an administrator I will never forget what the life of a professor was like. I hope that has kept me honest and true to the needs of higher education.

Second, he has not let up on his public criticism of Thames:

The difficulties between faculty and administration at the University of Southern Mississippi are unfortunate. I believe that the university is on track to deal with the serious accreditation issues it has faced. Everyone knows that you achieve more working together than in opposition, but sometimes it seems hard to act on that knowledge.

Indeed, USM may escape loss of accreditation because of Crofts' prompt intervention, ordering Thames to disavow the Black Friday memo. The outcome would have been very different had Thames and Malone continued unimpeded with their scheme to establish an Executive MBA while the university was under probation with the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools.

Even Board President Roy Klumb, who has insisted that Thames' schemes posed no obstacle to USM's accreditation, is now deferring to Crofts in public, and at least pretending to get with the program.

"We have told Dr. Thames that we don't want any new programs started or changed until this probation is over," Klumb said.

There is no reason to believe that Klumb is sincere--and plenty of reason to believe that a majority of the Board no longer supports him on this issue.

Finally:

The Mississippi university system is a growing and flourishing enterprise, but it flourishes despite the declining state resources that are invested in it. We take an annual investment from the Legislature of about $560 million and turn it into an enterprise whose annual expenditures exceed $2 billion. Enrollment continues to grow, including large numbers of students who come into Mississippi for higher education and bring their dollars with them. The extra dollars from student tuition, research grants, and private donations make the difference in quality for the moment, but we are not sure that reliance on those sources of funding can continue to make up for the limited economic resources in Mississippi made available for public higher education. The board of trustees tries to manage so that competition among the universities does not become a part of the problem, and the board is currently considering important changes that will lead it to speak more for the needs of the entire state.

This last passage could portend an official demotion of USM in the state system, but it more likely is a discreet plug for giving the commissioner more authority to run the day-to-day affairs of the state system, including the authority over accreditation matters that Crofts previously asked the Board for in January.

The Board's other likely course of action? It can rally behind Thames, refuse to expand the commissioner's authority, and get rid of Crofts because he dared to rein Thames in. But the cost of propping up the Thames regime gets heavier every day.

It's far from certain that the chain of events that Thames set in motion, when he tried to fire Frank Glamser and Gary Stringer, will lead to his downfall. But the probability is growing by the day. The probability that USM will emerge with its functionality intact is, unfortunately, smaller. But anything that might speed Thames' exit will give the university a fighting chance of recovering from what he has done to it.


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William Marina - 3/6/2005

You have done a terrific job of keeping us informed about what has been going on at USM. I do hope you will consider putting the sum of it into a book, perhaps on the Interent so that the many links can be utlized.

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