Does Anyone Want to Save a University, So an Incompetent Tyrant Can Take Credit?
As we head into the next meeting of the Institutions of Higher Learning Board, which runs the 8 universities in the Mississippi state system, the University of Southern Mississippi is under the most intense media scrutiny it has gotten since April.
USM's President Shelby Thames and his public relations machine keep on thrashing. On Sunday, Thames' hastily concocted guest editorial ran in the Biloxi Sun-Herald. (Today, it was picked up by the Jackson Clarion-Ledger.) At no point does Thames' article suggest that he has learned one thing about the requirements that universities need to meet for reaccreditation by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. But the events of the last few days have convinced Thames that, for some inexplicable reason, a lot of other people think accreditation matters, so from now on he has to pretend that he does, too.
Thames can't even keep his own lies straight. In his op ed, he declares that,"We take our SACS accreditation seriously. In 2002, when we became aware of the concerns of the commission, we began working immediately to address them." Just three days before, Thames was assuring the media that from the day he took office in May 2002 until shortly before the probation was announced in December 2004, no one at SACS or in his own administration had told him that there were any obstacles to reaccreditation.
The Sun-Herald, I might note, is the only Mississippi newspaper to come out editorially in favor of the Thames regime during the probation crisis. On Sunday, it weighed in with an editorial about poor Shelby who always does the wonderful things he promised to do, yet is being picked on by critics who are blowing the probation issue all out of proportion. The Sun-Herald has done no original reporting on the probation crisis, and carried as little from other sources as possible, even though USM's Gulf Park satellite campus is practically in the newspaper's backyard.
Meanwhile, the Hattiesburg American continues to do what newspapers can so rarely be counted on to do: it is asking questions. An editorial that ran today makes far too much of the supposed "four-year gap" in communications with SACS on file at USM. Those four years (1997-2001) happen to coincide with the administration of Horace Fleming, a predecessor whom Thames despises, and it has yet to become clear how much needed to be on file during that portion of the 10-year accreditation cycle, which began in 1995. Barring evidence to contrary from the accrediting agency, the most plausible interpretation is that SACS was largely satisfied with the information it was getting from USM during that period. It is also possible that there was material on file, but it was lost during the mass firings and games of administrative musical chairs that Thames indulged in after taking office in May 2002. But if the American keeps digging, there is a chance that we will learn the truth in a little while. In any event, if Fleming's administration dropped the ball on reaccreditation, that would have made it Thames' responsibility to give the accreditation process top priority in 2002. We already know that he did the exact opposite.
For an eloquently unvarnished assessment of USM's plight, see today's letter to the Jackson Clarion-Ledger by Noel Polk. Polk, an internationally renowned expert on William Faulkner, is the professor who was fired by USM's Dean of Arts and Letters Elliot Pood on September 2. Pood's gesture was a little late and more than a little superfluous, as well as gratuitously mean-spirited, since Polk, after accepting a position at Mississippi State, had written a letter of resignation two days earlier and mailed it to Pood. But Polk had been a thorn in Pood's side, as well as Thames', and that's all that counted. No wonder many insiders at USM are sure that Pood will be the next Provost, should there continue to be a Thames administration.
USM faculty members face a dilemma. Their university will not emerge from probation without their contributions to a masive program assessment effort, which will involve huge amounts of data collection and report writing. But such activity is categorized as"service," which means that to nearly any university administration it is far less worthy of reward than published research (especially grant-funded research). Thames, in fact, has deep contempt for any faculty activity that is not grant-funded research. Yet, since Thames neither understands the accreditation process nor respects the accrediting agency, he and his remaining underlings will not be able to do the job themselves. In fact, should Thames remain in power, he will actively impede the work of the faculty, and of those administrators who actually know something about accreditation.
But what if, despite it all, everyone perseveres, and pulls together to save USM from deaccreditation... Thames will appropriate the credit for their work, declare victory, and demand another four-year contract from the IHL Board. Which means that from 2006-2010 he will continue to tear pieces off USM and spit on its faculty, while declaring that he alone, in his infinite sagacity, saved the university from the ruin that a horde of lazy, whining professors was sure to inflict on it.
At its meetings on Wednesday and Thursday, the IHL Board can release USM's professors, and the competent members of its administration, from their dilemma. But to do that it has to fire Thames immediately, and hire an accreditation expert as interim president. More deeply, it has to turn its own complacent assumptions upside down, realizing that the faculty of USM are the ones who can get the job done, while the man it put in power in 2002 will never be up to it.
We will have a much better idea what is going to happen to USM on December 16, when the Board makes its announcements to the press.
As always, check the AAUP-USM message board for breaking news and discussion.
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Robert L. Campbell - 12/14/2004
Thames probably wishes he were a lifetime administrator, but he isn't.
After 6 years as Dean and then Executive Vice President at USM, Thames was fired from his upper administrative post in 1986. He spent the next 16 years as a Professor of Polymer Science before Roy Klumb and his allies made him the new President of USM.
David T. Beito - 12/14/2004
You're right. He doesn't get it. I assume that this guy is another lifetime administrator.
If so, this is yet another reason to impose term limits for all administrators and recruit them from within.