Blogs > Cliopatria > Mississippi Higher Education ...

Mar 9, 2004 2:05 pm

Mississippi Higher Education ...

I used to suffer from the liberal American illusion that everybody put their pants on one leg at a time, just like I do. Still suffering .... I used to think that one of these days civilization would come to Mississippi. Still thinking .... I used to believe that tenure protected college and university faculty members from abusive administrators. Still believing .... I used to hope for a day when Mississippi higher education was no longer an oxymoron. Still hoping .... But the arbitrary suspension of Professors Frank Glamser and Gary Stringer at the University of Southern Mississippi for inquiring about whether a university administrator had falsified her credentials convinces me that unless we act concertedly in defense of liberal values, that day is very far off indeed. Or, even, altogether lost sight of.

Erin O'Connor at Critical Mass tells the story. Eugene Volokh says that"... on its face, it seems like an extraordinarily serious academic freedom violation." Here, at Cliopatria, KC Johnson and Oscar Chamberlain (see the comments) and there, at Liberty & Power, David Beito (also here), King Banaian, and Charles W. Nuckols have added to the hew and cry. For a second time now, the Faculty Senate at the University of Southern Mississippi has voted no confidence in the administration of President Shelby F. Thames, who apparently runs the place as if it were his plantation and he its boss. My colleague at Cliopatria, Tim Burke, puts it best when he says:

In a way, this shows you why some of the discussions we have on academic weblogs are, though interesting, somewhat irrelevant. Because the frame of reference that matters isn't Swarthmore or Harvard or the University of Michigan. It's Southern Mississippi which is more representative of the breadth of academic life by far ... the tinpot dictatorship of its current president seems to me is widely typical of academic administration once you get past the places where there is wide public scrutiny. The key thing is that those of us in much better situations can't afford to wash our hands and look on with distant dismay: if ever there was a place that the thunderbolt of academic wrath should fall upon, it's this one. Every sanction that we have in our quiver should be unloosed.
Tim and Oscar may be right to correct my case for Mississippi exceptionalism. In any event, it is a remarkable instance of the dirty underside of American academic life. The AAUP, FIRE, and the National Association of Scholars can agree on this one and we can't afford to lose on it.

Update: It's a special pleasure to report that USM's remarkable contrarian/historian William K. Scarborough is said to be leading the resistance to President Thames. He knows a good bit about plantation management and some people know how to hit a plantation boss where it hurts. NB: Always pay close attention to what Eugene Volokh says. See also: Lord Sutch, Matt Weiner, Michael at Phluaria and Scott Rogers at Little Mean Fish. Thanks to Erin O'Connor at Critical Mass and Kieran Healy at Crooked Timber for links and tips.

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Ralph E. Luker - 3/9/2004

Mr. Brashears, I take your point, though I suggest that you look through the comments to the post over at Crooked Timber, where a USM alum notes a tradition of arbitrary administration at the school. It's all well and good for President Thames to appeal to an open process now. He might have thought about the importance of open process before he locked these two professors out of their offices, seized their computers, suspended them, and announced that they were in process of being fired. There appears to be much more going on here than immediately meets the eye. If the charge against the professors is merely that they had the ordacity to inquire into the credentials of one of Thames's appointees, what is he hiding?

Harold Cloyse Brashears - 3/9/2004

I wonder about posting this, but will anyway. I worked for USM for a decade, in fact, I worked in the Shelby Thames Polymer Science Building. I still live in SOuth Mississippi. I don't like Shelby, he is an autocrat and hot headed, but, in my experience, I have to admit he was honest.

If he was half so terrible as his detractors charge, you think that so many professors would be so free or so virulent in their criticism? If their accusations were even half true, Thames would just fire them all.

I hope that the fired professors ask for an open hearing. Then if Thames ratioanle for the firings is bogus, everyone will know.

Michael C Tinkler - 3/9/2004

The faculty obviously knew what he would be like when he was a candidate -- an 85% vote against the idea of appointing him? He must've been like this as a dean, too.

Ralph E. Luker - 3/8/2004

I suspect that you are correct to focus on the provinciality of President Thames's experience, but such provinciality -- of the local boy makes good variety -- is still not uncommon. You can get some of the background on his becoming the president at Southern Mississippi from the links at Erin O'Connor's Critical Mass.

Michael C Tinkler - 3/8/2004

Seems to me it has less to do with Mississippi than with a model of higher education that doesn't survive much of anywhere -- especially at public institutions.

Thames's website tells us he's B.S., M.S. Southern Mississippi, then off for a Ph.D. at Knoxville then came right back to USM for his whole career, made the polymer chemistry program there famous, and got hired as president.

"Local Boy Makes Good," which was a normal route to academic success, no longer seems to be. That sort of thing hung on at liberal arts colleges longer. No wonder he feels entitled to run "his" university his way and is behaving as though a challenge is some kind of treason.

I wonder what the process of his becoming president was like?