USM: More Shock Waves from the Probation Crisis
The shock waves are still traveling, after Thursday's revelation that the University of Southern Mississippi had been put on one year of probation by its accrediting body, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools.
A positive factor in all of this has been the Hattiesburg American's decision to put a hard-working reporter who knows how to ask questions on most stories about USM. As soon as you get past the misleading headline that someone else stuck on today's story, you can see how Kevin Walters has begun punching holes in the wall of excuses that USM President Shelby F. Thames, his Special Assistant Joan Exline, and his personal spinmeister Lisa Mader have been putting between themselves and the media.
Thames has been insisting that no one in his administration had told him that USM was in trouble with SACS. In fact, the story points that he was warned less than 6 weeks after he took office in May 2002:
News of the SACS probation surprised both Thames and Exline.
But an e-mail was sent from former associate provost Bradley Bond to former provost Andy Griffin and Thames on June 24, 2002, telling them Southern Miss"is not now in compliance with SACS mandates."
Thames met with SACS officials in September 2002 about the matter, flying to Georgia. After that, Thames said he and the President's Cabinet were told Southern Miss would be in compliance by the time a final progress report would be sent to SACS in September 2004.
Soon enough it will come out what SACS told Thames USM needed to be doing in September 2002. Whatever the particulars, however, Thames saw no particular urgency in addressing them. How could an outside agency like SACS pose any threat to USM, when Shelby F. Thames was in complete control? So he concentrated for the next two years on the only things that mattered to him: hiring hatchetpeople, firing anyone who wouldn't tell him what he wanted to hear, and bloviating about the"world class" status that USM had attained on the day that the Mississippi IHL Board made the truly brilliant decision to put it under the sole control of Shelby F. Thames.
Major catch-up work will be required, over a period of less than a year, to get the probation lifted. Thames served notice today that hiring people who know how to handle accreditation matters, or letting those at USM who understand the process take charge, will not solve the problem so long as he is around. For he would much rather interfere with accreditation efforts than court the danger of seeing someone else get them right:
"My feeling is if I'm going to have the responsibility, then I'm going to take full authority," he said."I have been criticized for being a micromanager. In my effort not to be a micromanager or not to ask for daily activity reports and appear to be a micromanager, at this point in time, I'm suffering some of the consequences of that."
Meanwhile, the editorial page of the Hattiesburg American has called on the IHL Board to conduct a full investigation of the reaccreditation fiasco.
Those on the Board who have spoken to the press all deny ever hearing of possible accreditation problems, from either Thames or any other USM official. Presumably nothing was said because Thames had convinced himself that the problems weren't real. Failing to address accreditation deficiencies for more than 2 years, while withholding any news about them from its governing board, constitutes more than adequate grounds for firing any university president.
So the Board has one remaining chance to save USM and begin repairing its own damaged reputation. Board members can fire Thames at their next meeting on December 16, bring in a president who specializes in restoring dysfunctional universities to health, and spend the next few months informing themselves about what is actually happening at the university by talking to faculty members, students, staff people, and lower-level administrators. If they do not take these steps, no doubt is likely to remain in anybody's mind about their true plans for the University of Southern Mississippi.
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