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Apr 6, 2004 1:16 am

USM: Maybe the Mess Will Get Cleaned Up after All

The latest turn of events in the USM crisis should remind everyone of the weakness and duplicity of governing boards when university administrators are up to no good. But it should also remind us of the power of publicity in such cases.

Trouble had been brewing ever since Shelby Thames became President of the University of Southern Mississippi, back in May 2002. But the crisis was precipitated exactly one month ago, when Thames fired Frank Glamser and Gary Stringer for investigating the credentials of Angie Dvorak, Thames’ hand-picked Vice President for Research and Development.

On March 18th, the Mississippi College Board took up the USM crisis during its monthly meeting. Emerging from executive session, the Board President announced that the Attorney General’s office would appoint a lawyer to monitor the appeal hearings for Glamser and Stringer and “ensure a fair process.”This, we now know, was an attempt to mislead Glamser and Stringer, the faculty and students of USM, and the taxpayers of Mississippi. Jim Keith, the attorney who was selected by the AG’s office, came from a firm that was already defending Thames and the USM upper administration in 6 different lawsuits. His function was not to ensure a fair hearing but to look out for Thames’ interests.

Fortunately, the Fire Shelby Web site immediately began asking whether Keith might have a conflict of interest. It emerged very quickly that Keith wasn’t returning phone calls from Glamser and Stringer’s lawyer. Pretty soon after that it turned out that Keith’s firm, Adams and Reese, was representing Thames in other cases. Newspapers in Mississippi, despite a decent record of covering the crisis, failed to breathe a word about conflict of interest until the issue finally broke through in the Jackson Clarion-Ledger, with Fire Shelby cited as the source.

It was pressure from Fire Shelby and a large number of letter writers that drove the Board to do what it had only pretended to do on March 18th.

The College Board held an emergency meeting on April 1st. Operating entirely behind closed doors, the Board called Thames back from Texas, where he had been on vacation. And they instructed the Attorney General to bring in a truly impartial arbiter. The selection of Reuben Anderson, who was the first African-American justice on the Mississippi State Supreme Court (he also served for 25 years on the board of Tougaloo College), takes control of Glamser and Stringer’s appeal hearing out of Thames’ hands.

The appeal hearing is now scheduled for April 28-29. The hearing will take place in front of the University Advisory Council. Whether it will be open or closed remains to be decided (Thames was eager to turn it into a show trial). And now three separate recommendations will be going up to the College Board: Thames’, the UAC’s, and Reuben Anderson’s. The Board will make the final decision.

What’s more, if there was any doubt about Keith’s true allegiance, his reaction to Anderson’s appointment let the cat out of the bag. According to the same Clarion-Ledger story:

Jackson attorney Jim Keith, one of the lawyers [Attorney General] Hood's office appointed to represent USM, said allowing Anderson to render a third-party recommendation takes away from Thames' ability to review the committee's deliberations and make a recommendation . The board"is going to have three recommendations instead of the two that are the standard procedure," Keith said."It sets a bad precedent for future cases."

It is also worth keeping in mind that Anderson’s recommendation will be coming to a College Board with 4 new members, who it is widely expected will be less favorably disposed toward the Thames autocracy.

At this point, supporters of Glamser and Stringer are feeling more optimistic about their prospects for reinstatement. Of course, the job will not be done until

  • Thames is pushed into immediate retirement;
  • Angie Dvorak is fired for lying on her vita;
  • Jack Hanbury’s specially crafted administrative position (“Director of Risk Management”) is abolished; and
  • The USM faculty manual is revised to exclude non-academic administrators from tenure and promotion decisions.

Angie Dvorak’s false claim to have been an Associate Professor at the University of Kentucky became an extra big deal because at USM the VP for Research plays a role in faculty tenure and promotion decisions. Yet Dvorak had never earned tenure at a 4-year institution. (Her Associate Professor position, which in any event came packaged with her job as President, was at Ashland Community College. It remains to be seen whether she ever actually held a tenure-track faculty job at a 4-year-institution before that. Meanwhile, her claim to be an Associate Professor of Economic Development at USM has now been quietly yanked from the university’s Web site.) Since the VP for Research, at a place like USM, is on the same level as the Provost and Chief Academic Officer, and controls a separate bureaucracy from the academic administration, such a person has no business being involved in tenure and promotion decisions. Otherwise, why not cut in the Chief Financial Officer and the VP for Student Affairs?

Stay tuned…and enjoy Marshall Ramsey’s latest cartoon.

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