Blogs > Liberty and Power > How Distinctive Is the University of Southern Mississippi?

Mar 14, 2004 10:12 am

How Distinctive Is the University of Southern Mississippi?

I agree with David Beito that the ongoing events at the University of Southern Mississippi show how tenure could become a dead letter. Not through post-tenure review, whose primary purpose is to weed out tenured professors who have become incompetent, but through arbitrary firings of productive faculty members for no legitimate cause, as Shelby Thames is trying to do to Frank Glamser and Gary Stringer.

A comprehensive way to catch up on events since Thames, an administrator already heartily disliked for his autocratic style, became President of USM is to read the sources linked at this protest site. (Meanwhile, Ralph Luker has been doing a commendable job posting updates on the crisis at Cliopatria.)

I find it interesting that in slightly under 2 years in office, Thames has pushed through several changes that upper administrators at Clemson wanted and got in the 1990s.

State university administrators are not particularly imaginative: the vision statement on USM’s official Web site could have come out of nearly any minor-league institution with major-league aspirations. One of Thames’ recently announced goals for USM, reaching $100 million in grant and contract-funded research, became an official goal at Clemson in the late 1990s (it has since been met). Though somewhat more prestigious than USM, Clemson is comparable in many ways: there are around 850 faculty at CU, as opposed to USM’s 600-odd; total enrollment at both universities in the 16,000s, though Clemson is heavier with graduate students; both universities belong to state university systems that are often seen as overbuilt and as tilting away from research-oriented institutions toward 4-year colleges and tech schools). So it is interesting to contrast how Clemson’s administration got what it wanted with the way Thames has tried to get what he wanted.

One change that Thames made was to consolidate 9 colleges into 5. Clemson did the exact same thing in 1994-95. Thames seems to have imposed the mergers himself, without even consulting his Provost, let alone anyone on the faculty. At Clemson there was some preparation by faculty-administrative task forces, though the final reorganization was decreed by the Board of Trustees, and implemented by a former Board member who became president for a year. 1994 and 1995 were turbulent years at Clemson. Max Lennon, the architect of the great administrative expansion at Clemson, was forced to resign in the spring of 1994, when the faculty finally became fed up with his policy of hiring more and more administrators and giving them much bigger raises than faculty members were getting. It was the Faculty Senate President at Clemson (a more adept politician than his present-day counterpart at USM) who persuaded the Senate to call off a resolution of no confidence, then upped the ante, by telling President Lennon that he would call a General Faculty meeting to consider the no-confidence resolution if Lennon did not resign.

The reorganization at Clemson did no harm overall; it actually helped us in the Social Sciences, by moving our departments out of the old College of Liberal Arts, which had always been the administration’s doormat. (I don’t know nearly enough about the history of USM, or its institutional culture, to know whether any departments have benefited from the realignment of the colleges there.) But the financial benefits of the reorg were purposely misrepresented: any money that Clemson saved by cutting 4 Dean positions was promptly spent on new Associate Dean positions. To create the semblance that the reorganization had reduced expenditures on administration, President Phil Prince and the Board arbitrarily redefined Department Chairs out of the administrative ranks. (A typical Department Chair at Clemson spends 2/3 of his or her time running the department, and teaches one course per semester.) The arbitrary redefinition came after a failed attempt to actually get rid of the Department Chair position; Prince backed off that one after he realized that he was about to spark another faculty revolt.

The reorganization has lasted at Clemson. It has outlasted the lies about how it cut administrative expense; these were loudly repeated for another 5 years, then retired when it became obvious, even to the Board of Trustees, that they were failing to impress the state legislature. For like most state legislatures during the past decade, the one in South Carolina was not terribly interested in funneling more money to the university, although it was interested in funding scholarships. In fact, President Deno Curris was forced out by the Board in 1999 after 4 years of promising, and failing to deliver, a shower of largess from Columbia. Since then, Clemson, like many other state universities, has become much more dependent on tuition as a source of revenue. Meanwhile, no reduction in administrative employment has taken place at Clemson; there are slightly more administrators working at CU now than there were in 1994, and around 100 fewer faculty members. Not having access to unfried financial numbers for USM, I can’t evaluate the claimed cost savings from the reorganization there. One source claims they amounted to $1.8 million a year. I’ll bet that that they were actually a lot smaller, for other stories indicate that Thames has kept creating new administrative positions…

Another institutional change that Thames has rammed through at USM is an online faculty activity reporting system. The Faculty Activity System, which came online at Clemson in the Spring of 1998, was the brainchild of Provost Steffen Rogers. Rogers claimed he needed it to prove to the South Carolina Legislature that we professors at CU weren’t occupied with afternoon rounds of golf, or sitting around with our feet on our desks. The legislature didn’t seem all that impressed by the FAS; bills mandating workload increases for faculty have never gotten out of committee, but the annual appropriations have been falling since 2000, and have yet to bottom out. At Clemson, the FAS was adopted after approximately a year of dickering with the Faculty Senate, and some testing of the software; at USM it again seems to have been imposed, suddenly and unilaterally, by the President.

A move distinctive to Thames’ administration was creating a new position called Director of Risk Management (truth in labeling title: Chief Hatchet Man) for a lawyer named Jack Hanbury. Hanbury just happens to have been the law partner of the husband of Angelina Dvorak, the Vice President for Research who allegedly lied on her vita. As soon as he arrived at USM in May of last year, Hanbury’s duties included monitoring every Faculty Senate meeting and heading up a commission, consisting primarily of administrators, that was charged with rewriting the USM Faculty Manual. At Clemson, the Faculty Manual is often amended to accommodate changes imposed by the administration, but all Faculty Manual language still has to originate in a committee of the Faculty Senate, and the Senate has to approve it by a 2/3 vote before it goes to the Board of Trustees for final approval. A few years ago, there was an attempt to tamper with the text of the Faculty Manual between passage by the Senate and submission to the Board of Trustees; after the Provost got caught with hand in cookie jar, such maneuvers stopped. I suspect it was the seizure of authority over the Faculty Manual that helped to push the situation at USM out of control. USM faculty weren’t too far off in speculating that Hanford was brought in to find ways to fire professors.

Other points of comparison? Well, lies told by university spokespersons have become routine. I’m afraid that Lisa Mader at USM doesn’t stand out in any way. Clemson’s university spokeswoman once faced a roomful of angry faculty members and calmly proclaimed that her job was to make the president of the university look good. She just verbalized what they’re all there for. When are journalists going to realize that university press releases are invariably written to flatter or protect the upper administration?

Fabricated or misleading statistics have also become routine at state universities, which are obligated by law to give public reports of many aspects of their operations. But Thames and his underlings don’t appreciate what is easy to get away with in this realm, and what is harder. Just a few months ago they inflated their graduate enrollment numbers (apparently so they could claim that USM had the biggest total enrollment of any university in the state system). So they were promptly caught lying about something that’s often asked about and readily checked. State universities get away routinely with fried or unintelligible financial numbers (they are held to very low standards of financial reporting to begin with). Faculty numbers are commonly exaggerated; for instance, Shelby Thames has a tenured faculty position attached to his job, so USM can count him as a faculty member when it expects some advantage out of doing so—and I’ll bet it does. These kinds of things are easy to get away with, because reporters don’t know what to ask about a university budget, and they’re not in the habit of caring how many employees spend more than half their time doing faculty work.

I would like to be able to say that cover-ups of administrative malfeasance are unique to USM, but of course they are not. Administrators at Clemson don’t want to admit that a professor lied on a vita, let alone that an administrator did it. But they would try much harder than Thames apparently did to keep the issue out of the public eye. Once the charges against Vice President Dvorak were in front of the public—as anything that’s the topic of a Faculty Senate or Student Government resolution has been—Thames either had to provide evidence to support what she said on her vita, or cut her loose while pretending that he had never tried to protect her. He did neither, and the crisis has proceeded from there.

I would also like to be able to say that arbitrary firings of tenured faculty are unique to USM, but of course they are not. In my experience, tenured professors who have displeased administrators are fired, or pushed into retirement, when they can be expected not to fight back. A soft target is a faculty member who has been on extended sick leave, and is too weak psychologically to do anything but leave quietly. Frank Glamser and Gary Stringer were too vigorous, too visible, and too ornery for anything of the sort to work. And publicly accusing them of investigating a Vice President’s credentials was a serious mistake. It would have been much better to find a pretext unrelated to the investigation. Indeed, Thames’ latest embroidery—insinuating that they violated criminal laws—reeks of desperation. Since he hates Glamser and Stringer in the worst possible way, it would be highly irrational of him not to call the District Attorney’s office and ask them to prosecute—unless he has no evidence on hand that would interest the DA.

So what’s distinctive about the president of USM? Thames’ ambitions for his kind of institution are standard-issue. His ideas are standard-issue. His level of cronyism also looks to be in the fat part of the distribution; his degree of ego involvement is noticeably above the mean, but not whoppingly so. The factors that make him different from recent Presidents of Clemson are: extreme incompetence at management; massive, unconcealed disdain for the faculty; and complete failure to grasp what is going to make him look bad when the daily newspapers pick it up. I am hoping that he stands out enough on these dimensions to have become a liability for those above him in the Mississippi state system.

I doubt that the Mississippi State Board of Institutions of Higher Learning cares that Thames is shredding tenure, or violating academic freedom—some Board members may well applaud him for doing those things. But the Board members will care that USM is getting a load of unfavorable media coverage, that faculty and student protests could paralyze both of USM’s campuses, and that prominent donors could withdraw their support. All they have to do is look at the way Thames is being portrayed by the political cartoonist at the Jackson Clarion-Ledger. And since he is clinging to power, they will have to fire him. One hopes that they will get rid of his worst cronies at the same time, but it doesn’t usually work that way; his old underlings could do damage for another year or more, until Thames’ successor finishes easing them out. The prospects for Glamser and Stringer’s fairly swift reinstatement seem better, despite the delays imposed by the appeal process, because it was Thames’ decision to fire them that sparked the crisis.

The best outcome will be decisive action against Thames by the Board at its next meeting (March 18). I would just as soon not see the American Association of University Professors get pressed into leading the resistance to the firings and to the administrative rewrite of the Faculty Manual. That’s because I fear that the national organization of the AAUP has very little gas left in the tank. The AAUP cannot afford to go up against any university administration that has a good chance of successfully defying it. The AAUP long ago gave up tangling with universities at the top of the prestige rankings, and we may be reaching the point where a minor-league operation like USM could be too powerful for it. By contrast, I am pleased to see that the American Civil Liberties Union is participating in Glamser and Stringer’s legal defense. Thames can rail against the ACLU all he likes, but there’s very little he can do to damage it.

Faculty members at USM and elsewhere are fortunate that Thames is making such an ass of himself that his own Provost is denying involvement in his decisions and taking exception to his remarks--and that influential people in Mississippi who have no objection to his program may find his manner of pursuing it unacceptably costly.

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Oscar Chamberlain - 3/14/2004

Fine commentary. The situation at Clemson was largely unknown to me, and the parallels are enlightening.

I do hope this publicity has the effect of getting Thames out, though as you note, his underlings may do harm for a while longer.

Oscar Chamberlain - 3/14/2004

Fine commentary. The situation at Clemson was largely unknown to me, and the parallels are enlightening.

I do hope this publicity has the effect of getting Thames out, though as you note, his underlings may do harm for a while longer.