On January 17, 2003, Shelby Thames, the President of the University of Southern Mississippi, summoned the deans of the 9 colleges to a meeting. There he announced that they were all fired, as part of a reorganization of 9 colleges into 5 that he and a handful of advisers had cooked up. Thames had thoughtfully informed the local business leaders who sponsored his presidency of his plans to fire them the night before.
The firings were egregious, as were the false claims that accompanied them ($1.8 million a year was allegedly returned to the classroom--a number that has sometimes grown in the telling to $2 million, and has been spent and re-spent several times, if you are foolish enough to believe Thames' public relations machine.) By no means were they the first signs of misrule during Thames' reign--those began as soon as he took office in May 2002--but the firing of the 9 deans made his megalomania and eagerness to deceive apparent to virtually everyone.
We have just passed another anniversary: January 16, 2004 was the date of a letter of warning addressed to Thames. It noted that that USM was behind schedule providing important documentation to its accrediting body, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. Thames ignored it, just as he had ignored a similar letter a year earlier. So on December 6 of last year, SACS put USM on a one-year probation.
Thames has now received an official letter from SACS, detailing what deficiencies must be corrected by August 2 if USM's probation is to be lifted. While USM has brought on board an experienced SACS consultant named Margaret Sullivan, Thames and his administrator in charge of accreditation, Joan Exline, have learned nothing. The optimistic tone of today's editorial from the Hattiesburg American is spoiled by another one of those blasts of fatuity for which Thames has become notorious:
“We were very pleased to see there was only one issue of concern cited by the association and that did not involve the university’s academic quality, programming or delivery of academic programs,” said Southern Miss President Shelby Thames.
The one area of concern cited in the letter, which is dated Jan. 6? Deficiencies in the university’s distance learning activities, and its failure to evaluate these activities.
By SACS' definition, all courses taught off the main Hattiesburg campus are"distance learning activities." Everything taught at the Gulf Park campus in Long Beach, at USM's other Gulf Coast sites (at the Stennis Space Center, at Keesler Air Force Base, and in Jackson County), and in USM's study-abroad offerings, is considered distance learning. And of course every course that is taught online is included.
Earth to Shelby: the quality of courses taught off the main campus, or online, is"academic quality." What else could it be?
Strong suspicions persist that under the Thames regime, USM has never reported to SACS any new distance learning courses, or conversions of old courses to a distance-learning format--and it is required to do so under SACS rules. Thames' incompetence is all-encompassing.
In my recent posts on USM, I have detailed the weaknesses of the heavily promoted graduate program in Economic Development, most of whose course offerings are online. Thames' pet program, run by his chief remaining enforcer, Ken Malone, had to be yanked out of the College of Business in October 2004 because it threatened the college's accreditation with the AACSB; the program now poses a threat to the entire university's accreditation with SACS.
Now there is further proof that Thames and Malone possess an unlimited craving for power, and a minuscule capacity for learning. Within the last week, two faculty members at the Gulf Park satellite campus revealed a secret plan to remodel the third floor of the Gulf Park library (which contains nearly all the book stacks, and a bunch of study areas) into a conference center to be used in an Executive MBA program. The existing MBA program has badly dwindled, amongst serious concerns about its academic quality. Malone has gotten the bright idea of pumping it back up, apparently without any involvement from the College of Business. Further accreditation woes are bound to follow.
Malone isn't quitting there. Those who first revealed the plan (Will Watson, an Associate Professor of English on the Gulf Park campus, and James Pat Smith, a Professor of History there) has been reprimanded by the Provost, Jay Grimes, and ordered not to criticize the plan in public. As far as Gulf Park is concerned, Grimes takes orders from Malone, one of whose job titles, in a collection that keeps growing, is Chief Operating Officer of that satellite campus. The only thing novel about this move is Malone's resort to a proxy. On October 12, 2004, he and an associate, Richard Farley, barged into a Gulf Park classroom to interrogate students about what their English professor had told them regarding his future plans for the Gulf Park campus. Malone and Farley stayed past the scheduled beginning of the class, and Malone stuck around to berate Stevenson in the hallway afterwards. Farley then returned to interrogate students in the professor's afternoon class. Diane Stevenson had told her students what she had heard in a recent speech by Provost Jay Grimes, who had announced that most Gulf Park classes would be replaced with online offerings. Indeed, that was and is Malone's plan.
It's getting grim in Hattiesburg and points south. Without long-overdue action by the IHL Board, which no longer trusts Thames but is keeping him in office, the exodus of faculty is going to reach stampede proportions.
Update, 8:52 AM, January 18. I have corrected this entry to name both professors who were ordered not to speak about the Executive MBA plan, and to identify all of USM's teaching sites in southern Mississippi.