Lots More Brewing at the University of Southern Mississippi
The two and a half weeks (since my update of April 5) might look like a lull in the crisis at the University of Southern Mississippi. After all, it was on April 1 that the Mississippi College Board met in executive session and decided to put former State Supreme Court justice Reuben Anderson in charge of the appeal hearing for Frank Glamser and Gary Stringer, the two tenured professors summarily fired by USM President Shelby Thames back on March 5. And the Glamser-Stringer hearing won't take place for another 5 days.
In fact, a lot has been brewing and percolating. As always, the best place to go for news about the crisis is the Fire Shelby site. The discussion forum on Fire Shelby has been getting"trolled" more often during the last couple of weeks, but that's happening because Thames and his cronies have come to realize the danger the site poses to them.
So here's the rundown:
On April 7, the USM Faculty Senate's Ad Hoc Committee on Credential and Hiring and Tenure Processes issued a preliminary report on Angela Dvorak's qualifications to evaluate professors for tenure or promotion. Using information obtained from the USM Web site and other sources, the committee concluded that Dvorak had not been an Associate Professor of English at the University of Kentucky, as she claimed. Rather, she had been granted tenure in the University of Kentucky system, because she was the President of Ashland (KY) Community College. (Glamser and Stringer were fired for raising the very same objection.) The committee could not use the vita that Dvorak had submitted at the time of hiring as a source; she refused to provide it except in a face-to-face meeting with the committee, which would have to agree not to make copies of the document, and it wisely refused to accept such conditions. The Faculty Senate has also had to make a Freedom of Information Act request to find out whether a proper job search was conducted when Dvorak was hired (to date, the Thames administration has not delivered the requested information; it has until April 29 to do so). The committee further established that Dvorak held no tenured faculty position at USM (an important matter to settle, because various faculty titles have been attributed to her on the university's Web site). Consequently, she has never earned tenure at a 4-year institution, and is therefore not allowed, under USM's Faculty Handbook, to evaluate anyone for tenure, or promotion to Associate Professor. A fortiori she is not qualified to evaluate anyone for promotion to Full Professor, a rank she has never been promoted to herself.
On April 16, the full Faculty Senate voted 31-9, with one abstention, to approve a resolution stating that Dvorak is not qualified to participate in tenure or promotion for USM faculty members; in fact, that playing this role puts her in violation of the university's Faculty Handbook. Dvorak complained,"There's nothing in my job description that requires me to be a tenured professor." Leaving no doubt about her allegiances, USM spokesperson Lisa Mader declared,"It makes me sick to see her treated this way." Meanwhile, Dvorak carried on about being unfairly deprived of the opportunity to talk (or bully) her way out of the scrape she was in:"I'm worn out"..."I've never worked with people who wouldn't sit down and talk with me.""
My information concerning the next three items is derived from the Fire Shelby message board, which is not set up to allow linking to separate messages.
Reliable sources say that Thames, in his usual thoughtful, self-controlled fashion, responded to the report of April 7 with a plan to dissolve the Faculty Senate, but was dissuaded at the last moment by one dean. Supposedly, too, reporters from a couple of Mississippi newspapers have interviewed faculty members and administrators, and are in a position to run this explosive story, but have held back.
Thames and his laywers waited until the due date (April 14) to reveal the formal charges to Glamser and Stringer, who by then had agreed to a public hearing. Despite fervent rumor mongering out of the Dome (the central administration building on the main USM campus) about how G and S had stolen Dvorak's Social Security number, or pretended to be official representatives of USM, Dvorak's vita is a public document, as is any information necessary to impeach it, and there is no reason to think G and S did anything but consult public sources. Preparations have been made for a major media presence at the April 28 hearing (spaces will be reserved for 6 satellite trucks), but it has been placed in a relatively small room (seating a total of 100, with only 35 seats available to attendees from USM). Now that he is no longer able to conduct a show trial, it appears that Shelby Thames does not want more than a handful of professors or students in the hearing room.
It has further emerged that Dvorak's first job in Mississippi, as Vice President of Mississippi Technology Alliance in 2000-2002, placed her in an organization which also included Shelby Thames as a member of the Board of Directors. Another Director of MTA was Carl Nicholson, a member of the Mississippi College Board who has been a consistent sponsor of Shelby Thames. Exactly what this foundation and a related body called the Institute for Technology Development did, besides pay the salary and benefits of Dvorak and a couple of other executives, remains to be determined. In a speaker bio for a recent speech at a conference, Dvorak maintained that,"During her tenure [er, unfortunate choice of words, but she means while working at MTA and ITD] Dr. Dvorak made over 200 public presentations, conference papers, and keynote speeches." I guess old habits die hard.
And the Student Government Association at the main campus in Hattiesburg, whose leaders have steadastly refused to criticize Thames, has been the recipient of an unexplained 123% increase in its annual budget.
While the standoff continues, faculty vacancies are growing. USM is now short by 112 faculty positions; the exact figures are hard to find out, as is unfortunately typical at state universities, but apparently the number of faculty remaining is around 540. Some of those who are leaving have openly cited the Thames regime as a reason for their decision. Some departments have been gutted. Two top administrators have been interviewing elsewhere: Joe Paul, the VP for Student Affairs, and Tim Hudson, the Provost, who had obviously been out of the loop on many of Thames' decisions. The public reactions by Thames and his spokesflack, Lisa Mader, can only be described as desperately creative:"it is a credit to this university that competing institutions look to the University of Southern Mississippi for outstanding candidates for leadership positions."
In a post already bulging toward epic length, I've had to leave out further subplots, pertaining to assorted crosscurrents in local politics, the tension between supporters and opponents of gambling casinos in the state, and to the apparent rationale behind the recent appointments of 4 new College Board members by new Governor Haley Barbour. These are better taken up by someone with native-level knowledge of Mississippi politics.
Those safely out of range of Thames' mismanagement may be intrigued by the story because of its three-ring circus quality. But the USM struggle has a deeper meaning. What Thames and his cronies are seeking, in their uniquely ham-handed way, is the same thing that many an upper administrator at many a research-oriented state university dreams about. When his fits of rage and bouts of foot-in-mouth disease aren't distracting him, Thames is working to make USM into an adminstrative university: an institution whose mission is to employ administrators, and whose other employees are on hand to support administrators, or bring in the revenue to build and sustain maximum administrative employment. Grant-funded researchers are to be recruited, because their grants and contracts are a source of revenue to the administration, and undergraduate students will be tolerated so long as the tuition payments and state subsidies they bring in cannot be replaced by new income streams. But during the transitional period during which undergrads continue to encumber the campus, they are best taught by instructors on year-to-year contracts, who will put down no roots and raise no objections.
The march toward an administrative university continues apace. Thames, like many applied science and engineering bigots, is said to regard the art program as a drag on USM. Now we learn that the Art Department is to exiled from campus to a renovated high school in downtown Hattiesburg. And while unfried budget numbers are, as usual, impossible to come by, knowledgeable insiders report that Thames has been taking lines in the budget that belonged to now-vacant faculty posts and reclassifying them as administrative lines. Not only does this enable him to put more yes men and hatchet women on the payroll, it furthers the all-important task of diverting resources from faculty to adminstration.
A lot depends on the outcome of this struggle, and there are enough juicy tales in it to hold the attention of crack investigative reporters--so where the hell are the national media? If the New York Times paid half the attention to USM that it is giving the grad student strike at Columbia, there might be adequate public pressure to get the state to audit the books of several USM units that have become locally notorious for their squirrelly and unsavory financial practices. If even the Atlanta Constitution deigned to notice what was going on, a couple of states to the west, lots of other media outlets would want in on the act. Not to take anything away from the Mississippi newspapers, which have performed much better than their counterparts in South Carolina or some other parts of the country would have done, but one of the reporters at the Hattiesburg American is obviously biased in favor of Thames, and (as is the case with reporters nearly everywhere) most are doing a lot of things at once, and find it easiest to write stories when their information has been handed to them on a plate. The serious investigative work continues to be done by volunteers at the Fire Shelby site, whose impact can be gauged from the citations it is now getting in news stories, and the derogatory public references it is now getting from Thames supporters.
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Fire Shelby - 5/2/2004
You are a wonderful ally in the battle in which we are engaged at USM.
Thanks for all of your thoughtful reports.
David T. Beito - 4/25/2004
I'm glad your on top of this story. This is a critical showdown for those of us who support academic freedom
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