University of Southern Mississippi: Thames Still Trying to Figure Out Who Ate His Homework
A great many alumni from the University of Southern Mississippi cared little about Shelby Thames' attempts to fire Frank Glamser and Gary Stringer. Consequently the public controversy, which raged for about two months, died down after the Institutions of Higher Learning Board, which controls the state universities in Mississippi, imposed a settlement on both sides, and kept Thames on as president of USM.
Since the Board reaffirmed its sponsorship of his regime in May of this year, Thames has not exactly gotten a free ride in the media. But overall he has sustained little further damage, despite regular embarrassing revelations about the condition of the university under his rule. Even the announcement in August that USM had sunk from the 3rd to the 4th tier among national universities in the US News and World Report rankings posed no apparent threat to his job security.
Now, however, Thames is reaping the consequences of putting a low institutional priority on the academic assessment efforts, the academic strategic planning, and the detailed report writing that the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools expects to see during every 10-year reaccreditation cycle. Add to that his propensity to fire or reassign or drive off just about every administrator with any real competence in these areas, his utter disregard for any knowledge or expertise that faculty members might be able to bring to bear on them, and his narcissistic refusal to register any and all negative feedback, and Thames may really have gotten himself into trouble at last.
Because USM has been put on one year of probation by SACS--after Thames was given a warning 2 years ago that he apparently believed superior beings do not need to heed-- alumni are waking up to the threat that Thames' total mismanagement is posing to the value of their degrees. Even those who care about little more than the fortunes of the USM football program have to acknowledge that the threatened loss of accreditation will make it harder to recruit athletes.
Meanwhile, Thames is still unable to decide who to offload the repsonsibility onto:
Though Thames said he did not want to place the blame for the probation on any single person - or name that person - he said he had been reassured by staff members that there wasn’t a problem.Thames claims that it will cost $500,000 to hire a new administrator in charge of assessment. This despite the fact that he has on his current staff a well- compensated Special Assistant who is supposedly responsible for such things-- yet professes not to have known that SACS was about to bring down the axe.
Thames has tentatively renominated former Provost Tim Hudson for the scapegoat position. But Hudson was not in charge of the main campus of USM during the entire two-year period. Besides, Thames has already blamed Hudson for the August tierdrop, and for an embarrassing episode in which USM sent an unauthorized report on the performance of certain tenured professors to the IHL Board and tried to pass it off as the result of a formal post-tenure review. Out of sheer desperation, Thames has even tried to push the blame all the way back to Horace Fleming, who was the president of USM from 1997 to 2001. (A timeline being circulated by Thames' immediate dependents in USM's upper administration seems intended to transfer responsibility to Fleming. But even if the account given is historically accurate--and there is no reason to believe that, when it comes from a source with no credibility remaining--it does a better job of chronicling the ineffectuality of Thames and his henchcrew than of exonerating them.)
Eventually Thames will try to staple the blame to his Special Assistant, Joan Exline, or to the current provost, Jay Grimes (who was in charge of the Hattiesburg campus during part of Thames' term in office), or to someone else who is still employed by USM.
But naturally all of the obstacles in the path of reaccreditation will remain, so long as Thames is in charge. SACS is not likely to make his removal from office a condition of reaccreditation--accrediting agencies routinely ignore blatant mismanagement at the universities they evaluate. But Thames can be counted on to devalue and obstruct any serious efforts on the part of administrators or faculty members to do the planning and assessment and produce the reports that will be needed to get the probation lifted.
Members of the IHL Board, which will meet December 15 and 16, are either keeping silent or temporizing with Thames. But making light of the probation is not an adaptive strategy, as SACS' own official in charge of the USM case has made clear:
The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools monitored the University of Southern Mississippi’s failure to comply with reporting standards for two years prior to putting the school on a one-year probation this week, a SACS official said Thursday.
"In terms of the procedure itself, they had run the string out,” said Gerald Lord, SACS associate executive director who is the accrediting group’s liaison to Southern Miss. “They had exhausted the maximum two-year monitoring period and had not come into compliance."
But of course the Board can't just call a press conference and proclaim that deaccreditation is what its ruling faction was shooting for all along. IHL Board members are now, finally, in danger of forfeiting their credibility with USM alumni, and convincing the wider public that their true agenda is demolishing the institution. The only way they can dispel the impression that they are out to ruin the university is to remove Thames from office at their next meeting.
If today's editorial in the Jackson Clarion-Ledger is any indication, in getting USM put on probation, Thames and his henchcrew have now exhausted the patience of the local media:
This problem lies squarely at the steps of the president of the university. It's embarrassing. The College Board should intervene and send in personnnel to ensure corrections are made. The board also should be discussing Thames' future with him, or whether there should be one.
And don't miss Marshall Ramsey's cartoon on USM's postseason bowl prospects.
As always, check the message board of the USM chapter of the AAUP for breaking news.
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Robert L. Campbell - 12/10/2004
No one knows for sure what the IHL Board intends. But the performance of the Shelby Thames administration has been so horrible that the most plausible explanation is a desire to prevent USM from competing with Mississippi State and Ole Miss (both of them only 3rd tier national universities). More generally, it would be a desire to hold down the southern third of Mississippi, which has been growing a lot, in favor of the northern and central parts of the state, where Ole Miss and Miss State are located, respectively. Roy Klumb, Thames' chief sponsor, is a graduate of Mississippi State.
I'm not an expert on SACS' procedures, but my understanding is that if USM doesn't come up with the material needed to get off probation within a year, it will lose its accreditation. No more extensions...
Those who finished their degrees while USM was still accredited would be somewhat better off than those who didn't finish until after accreditation was withheld...but there would be palpable hit to nearly anyone who holds a degree from USM.
Geoffrey Allan Plauche - 12/10/2004
I know little about this issue and haven't had a chance to check out the many links yet. Why is the IHL board trying to ruin the university?
Also, what will happen if the university doesn't get reaccredited after the one year probation is up? Or is it likely that the probation will be extended. I don't know the details of what the consequences will be for the students there, but I imagine they will be screwed royally. Will those graduating in the year that accreditation is lost earn an accredited degree? What about those who earned their degrees over the previous semester or few years? And the students about to graduate in a semester or two?