Blogs > Liberty and Power > While USM's Troubles Deepen, Thames Takes Time to Congratulate Himself

May 10, 2004 9:20 pm

While USM's Troubles Deepen, Thames Takes Time to Congratulate Himself

On Thursday May 6, the embattled President of the University of Southern Mississippi emailed an apologia for his regime to the university's faculty and staff. Shelby Thames' letter apparently did not reach all USM students, but it was sent to every newspaper in the region, and published in the Biloxi Sun Herald.

The letter actually came out the same day that Thames' Chief Hatchet Man, Jack Hanbury, was compelled to resign, and another significant player on his henchcrew, Director of Human Resources Mark Dvorak, went missing in action (four days later, his fate remains a mystery). Just three days earlier, Thames had ordained the establishment of a President's University Council, consisting of 18 professors, staff members, and students handpicked by his deans, in order to make it appear that he was"improving communication" (and, according to many observers, to have a replacement ready when he decided to dissolve the Faculty Senate).

I'm reproducing the full text of Thames' letter, in bold. My comments appear in between paragraphs.

Dear students, faculty, staff, supporters and friends of Southern Miss,

The University of Southern Mississippi has experienced some difficult times recently. I regret that some of the changes made since I've become President of this fine university have generated controversy. However, I have been associated with Southern Miss for more than 40 years, and I assure you it has never been my intention to cause our university harm or unrest. Actually, quite the opposite.

Thames fails to mention a single one of his actions that"generated controversy." Not a solitary word about :

  • deliberately not forwarding tenure papers to the state College Board for final approval, so that faculty members who did not enjoy his favor would lose their jobs without being formally turned down for tenure
  • locking the entire Institutional Research unit out of their offices, and firing them at one stroke
  • imposing a draconian computer use policy
  • firing 9 deans without warning and replacing them with 5 new ones
  • falsifying enrollment figures to make USM appear to have more students enrolled than the University of Mississippi, Mississippi State, or Jackson State
  • hiring underqualified cronies, apparently without searches, and putting them into high administrative positions
  • firing two tenured professors for questioning the credentials of an underqualified crony
  • monitoring the email of the editor of the student newspaper, reading it some of it aloud during a hearing, and accusing her of writing stories opposed to his administration in return for favorable letters of recommendation from professors

When I became president of Southern Miss, our university was financially strapped. It was imperative that we resolve our financial challenges in order to ensure our status as a Carnegie Research Extensive University and to keep jobs from being lost. I have responded to these issues.

Jim Hollandsworth, who knows the history of USM extremely well, has pointed out that the three years preceding Thames' ascension to the presidency, in May 2002, were marked by cuts in state appropriations and belt-tightening at USM. The fiscal pressures have actually diminished since Thames became president, but that doesn't prevent him from claiming credit for the accomplishments of the previous administration, or exaggerating the depth of the financial problems now.

As president, I have enacted decisions and strategic moves to ensure, not only that we would not regress, but that we would actually gain ground in the academic and financial arenas. My first move was to reorganize our academic structure so that the majority of our assets were being utilized in the classrooms and the laboratories rather than on administrative costs. The plans for reorganization took more than six months and were well thought out, and thoroughly researched. The reorganization, though not popular to some, allowed the reallocation of more than $2 million from administrative costs to the classrooms.

Supposedly, Thames once boasted that his reorganization was worked out in 30 to 40 hours by himself and members of his kitchen cabinet. In any event, reorganizing colleges at a university can bring some benefits, but it also imposes considerable short-run expenses. There is zero evidence that academic programs at USM have benefited from the reorg; indeed, some are notably worse off. The Nursing program, once one of USM's best, is reeling; many think it is on the verge of collapse. Legitimate Business programs are losing faculty, while an Economic Development program of dubious academic quality has been rapildy expanding under the direction of multiple office holder Ken Malone and allied members of the henchcrew.

While we continued to strengthen our financial status, we also developed incentive pay programs to reward faculty and staff. Furthermore, we established additional excellence in teaching and research awards totaling more than $60,000. Additionally, mid-year raises were awarded for two consecutive years, and though this process came under criticism and scrutiny, I am proud that we were able to reserve sufficient monies in these difficult financial times to reward many of our faculty members. I brag on our faculty and staff at every opportunity. I promise that we will make every effort to continue to reward faculty and staff for their hard work and will make our case for additional legislative funding for salary increases.

Sources at USM tell me that no one outside of Polymer Science, the privileged unit that is Thames' home base, has received any of the aforementioned"incentive pay." Meanwhile the process for awarding midyear raises was conducted in secrecy and obvoiously tainted with political favoritism (the biggest percentage raise went to Thames' own daughter Dana, who is Chair of one of the Education departments). It was in a last-ditch effort to keep deans from reporting to the Faculty Senate which faculty members were initially recommended for merit raises that Jack Hanbury ordered them to violate state law.

In any case, the"sufficient monies" have been generated by leaving faculty positions unfilled. USM has at least 112 open vacancies on its faculty (compared to the approximately 540 faculty members who currently work there), and the total is bound to rise, as more professors flee Thames' mismanagement and outsiders are deterred from applying for openings.

As for the supposed redirection of $2 million to the classroom (some way or other, this grew from the previously announced figure of $1.8 million), keep in mind that Thames first practiced his firing ritual when he locked out the entire Institutional Research staff, and that he has also run off the senior managers in Financial Affairs. Apparently he was feeling confined by the rather lax standards of institutional reporting that prevail at state universities. Since Thames has been busily inventing new high-salaried positions in his upper administration, some of them supposedly converted from faculty positions, and his administrative hires have been busy expanding their staffs, there are unlikely to have been any net savings from the reorganization, even if we don't count the one-time expenses of moving, changing stationery, and the like.

And if Thames is truly inclined to"brag on" the faculty of USM, why has he publicly accused two senior professors of committing crimes? Why do his supporters write letters to the editor and make public pronouncements decrying the entire faculty as lazy, no-good whiners?

I have been accused of focusing too much of our university's efforts on economic development and research. I am sorry that some don't see the necessity in this focus, but it is the wave of the future, and Southern Miss must be positioned to remain at the forefront of higher education. In a national trend, the day of"fully funded state support" for our universities is gone forever. State funding is becoming more and more scarce, and we must identify new ways to become self-sufficient. We can no longer rely on the state to keep Southern Miss financially sound. It is imperative that we pursue new and novel support venues and forge through uncharted territory. This tenet may appear to be a different approach to the management of higher education institutions, but it is taking place at all progressive thinking universities in the nation. We simply have no choice but to continue to aggressively seek grants, private funding sources and commercialize our research assets, partnering them with business and industry. There are those who don't agree with the approach we are taking, but I ask them to give it a chance to work. Our efforts are already achieving success.

While the pros and cons of promoting more grant-funded research need a thorough discussion of their own, lots of university presidents are doing the same thing these days. If you want more grant and contract-funded research, you hire more professors who are doing more of it, and reward those already at the university for doing more of it. There is no need to bully the faculty, or lie to everyone in sight, or hire a manifestly unqualified Vice President for Research.

Besides, Thames' conception of research is so egocentric that he gives special attention to grant-funded work only if it emanates from Polymer Science (whose building on campus is named after him). See the first two bullets on his list that follows:

  • Thanks to our partnership with Hybrid Plastics, the company has relocated from California to Hattiesburg as noted in the January 30, 2004 edition of the Los Angeles Times.
  • Hattiesburg recently lured away Fountain Valley-based Hybrid Plastics, Inc.the company's half a dozen Ph.D scientists also anticipate longer-term returns from an alliance with The University of Southern Mississippi.
  • Through a public/private partnership with the Area Development Partnership and the Forrest County Industrial Park Commission, Southern Miss will lead the effort to create an Innovation and Commercialization Park in Hattiesburg.
  • Southern Miss reached a new record in research funding of $67 million in 2003, marking an increase in externally generated funding for the fifth year in a row.
  • In addition to the $67 million, an addition of $14 million was received late, bringing the 2003 research total to $81 million.

Something that any state university president would be expected to mention these days, but is entirely absent from Thames' apologia, is contributions from private donors. As higher education sinks down the list of legislative priorities, state universities are now emulating private universities: seeking to build endowments, and cultivating relationships with wealthy alumni. But Thames has no discernible skill at persuading people to donate to USM. What's more, he has put an inexperienced manager in charge of the Development Office, whose bullying has induced Development Officers to flee in droves. As a consequence, USM's Capital Campaign, which aimed to raise $100 million, and exceeded the original expectations for it, has stalled out around $85 million since Thames became president. Thames presumably has little interest in supporting a campaign that was initiated by his predecessor, Horace Fleming, and that counts another former president of USM, Aubrey Lucas (who once fired Thames from a Vice-Presidential position), as its honorary chair.

Considering how governing boards often hire Presidents who are poor managers, or downright rascals, as long as they have a proven track record of getting donors to give money, Thames' neglect of fund-raising has to be the most remarkable of all of his irresponsibilities.

We are growing our academic programs, too. In the past year alone, the Board of Trustees approved four new programs at Southern Miss.

In this little afterthought, the academic programs do not even merit naming. It is further worth noting that Thames apparently does not consider tuition a source of revenue. As legislative appropriations continue to decline, tuition is becoming an increasingly important source of income to state universities across the United States. But again Thames apparently identifies USM's fortunes with that of his own program. And at a Polymer State or a Thames Tech, undergraduates would be an unnecessary burden.

As a member of the Southern Miss family, I want you to know that our university is growing and developing in a healthy way. I will be the first to acknowledge that we've experienced growing pains along the way. We all learn from our challenges, and Southern Miss will be a better institution for weathering change in these difficult times.

Once again, there is no admission of bad acts or poor decisions, either by Thames or by anyone in his administration. Learning is a process of correcting some errors, and coming up with ways to avoid others. If you can't anticipate errors, or respond to them, you can't learn.

I am honored to serve as president of The University of Southern Mississippi. I hope you will keep in mind that, in this role, I am frequently faced with the responsibility to make and execute difficult decisions that are not viewed by everyone as popular. I can assure you, that with every decision I make, I listen carefully to input from the university community, and I give great consideration to the issue before I make a decision. I have committed my life to advancing our university, and as your president, I will continue to devote my full attention to working with you while Southern Miss becomes firmly established as a world-class institution.

This stupendously self-absorbed conclusion (to fully understand it, the reader must realize that, in his own mind, Thames is USM) incorporates two outright lies. First, that Thames"listen[s] carefully to input from the university community." On the contrary, he is exclusively interested in making the university community listen to him. Second, that Thames"give[s] great consideration to the issue" before making a decision. Decisions of such impact as firing Frank Glamser and Gary Stringer on March 5 give every impression of having been made in fits of fury, without any regard for their likely consequences.

Most Sincerely,
Shelby Thames
Shelby F. Thames, Ph.D.
The University of Southern Mississippi

If Shelby Thames were genuinely attending to input from the university community, the only thing he could be doing now would be announcing his immediate return to the Polymer Science lab, and inviting the remaining members of his henchcrew to pack their trunks and roam.

The Student Printz isn't accepting this purported olive branch: the May 7 issue of the USM student newspaper is full of powerful criticisms of the Thames regime. The Faculty Senate's response to the letter, which FS President Myron Henry was pressed to read aloud at the body's Friday meeting, was a 39-1 vote in favor of a resolution asking Thames to resign. Such veterans on the USM scene as former Dean of the Graduate School Jim Hollandsworth and Professor of English Noel Polk aren't buying any of it either. I've been fortunate to be able to borrow from their responses and those of several pseudonymous contributors, which can be read in full on the Fire Shelby message board.

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melissa ellis whiting - 5/10/2004

What a GREAT post!! I'm keeping it my own files, for future reference. I've again sent the website to many of my colleagues across the U.S.

melissa ellis whiting - 5/10/2004

"deliberately not forwarding tenure papers to the state College Board for final approval, so that faculty members who did not enjoy his favor would lose their jobs without being formally turned down for tenure"

A couple of us thank you for mentioning that! I sent an email to your home mail the other evening, as I waited for my teenage daughter to get home from a date. What a messy, murky place USM is right now.