Blogs > Liberty and Power > Uneasy Stalemate at USM

May 16, 2004 1:21 pm

Uneasy Stalemate at USM

At the University of Southern Mississippi an uneasy stalemate now prevails, as just a few days remain until the next meeting of the Mississippi College Board. On May 19th and 20th the Board is slated to review the performance of President Shelby Thames.

Thames has sustained a series of losses over the past two and a half weeks:

  • The Board, via retired Judge Reuben Anderson, required him to accept a settlement that prevented him from firing Professors Frank Glamser and Gary Stringer.
  • An email from Thames'"Director of Risk Management," Jack Hanbury, ordering academic deans to violate the state Public Records Act, was leaked to the press. Almost immediately, Attorney General Jim Hood, who has supervisory authority over attorneys for state universities, fired Hanbury, depriving Thames of his Chief Hatchet Man.
  • Thames' testimony at the hearing for Glamser and Stringer revealed how heavily he was relying on intercepted emails to and from the professors, and his use of some of those emails to make it appear that Frank Glamser was bribing Rachel Quinlivan, the editor of the USM Student Printz, alienated many in the local media.
  • The USM Faculty Senate passed resolutions demanding Thames' resignation, an end to his surveillance of faculty and student email, and an investigation by the state Auditor of his administrative hiring practices.

The good news for Thames over that period was twofold:

  1. The Mississippi College Board did not hold an emergency meeting to review his performance before Saturday May 8, when his longtime sponsor Roy Klumb took over the Board Presidency.
  2. Despite persistent rumors to that effect, Thames' henchman Mark Dvorak, the Director of Human Resources, was not ousted. My apologies for reporting that he was; for several days, I could not obtain reliable information on his status. Mark Dvorak is the husband of Angie Dvorak, the Vice President for Research who remains at the center of the storm. And Mark Dvorak's predecessor, Russ Willis, has had to be brought back in an Associate Director capacity to keep the unit functioning. So while he is eminently vulnerable, Shelby Thames isn't feeling enough pressure, yet, to induce him to get rid of a crony in an effort to keep his job. The Hanbury firing was obviously not his idea.

Over the past week Thames has been cranking out press releases, in order to produce the impression of remaining in control. On Monday May 10 he issued a challenge to the USM Faculty Senate, which he had stopped talking to altogether after it first voted no confidence in him back in March. Thames sent FS President Myron Henry the following memo:

Dear Dr. Henry:
With the end of the spring semester nearing, I know the Faculty Senate is making plans for the upcoming academic year. As you make those plans, I am requesting that you develop and provide me your mission, vision, goals, and strategies for the upcoming year. Please include with your goals and strategies how you plan to assist the University in working with the Board of Trustees of the State Institutions of Higher Learning and the Legislature to increase salaries of University employees, to implement a more equitable funding formula and to maximize our student recruitment efforts.
Knowing the Faculty Senate's goals and objectives as well as plans to reach them will allow us to pool our resources and enhance our effectiveness, thereby enabling timely and improved results in the execution of our University mission.
Please have this information to me no later than Monday, July 5, 2004. As the new fiscal year begins, I ask that the new president provide me with a written monthly update regarding the Faculty Senate's progress in meeting their goals. Additionally, the Faculty Senate representative will be asked to give an update at all Cabinet meetings so that the entire University community can be informed of your successes.
If you have any questions or need any clarifications regarding my request, please feel free to call me at 266-5001.
Shelby F. Thames

This is a truly remarkable request. University presidents far less autocratic than Thames jealously reserve strategic planning to themselves and their upper administrators. And the mere thought of the Faculty Senate making plans to lobby the state legislature, or presenting proposals to a system Board of Trustees, makes a state university president reach for the sleeping pills. Presidents also prefer to withhold the data that would be needed to make well-informed decisions about such matters. It is a safe bet Shelby Thames has no genuine interest in any strategic plans that might emanate from the Faculty Senate. Apparently he crafted the memo to project a semblance of cooperation where none is truly intended. Perhaps, too, he expects to be able to denounce the Faculty Senate for failure to produce a strategic plan, when it comes time for him to disband that body.

Yet the memo affords major opportunities to the USM Faculty Senate, which can now plausibly demand large amounts of additional data from Thames and his administrators, on the grounds that they are needed to do the planning. The Senate can also produce concrete plans to cut administration, targeting specific positions for elimination and showing how much money will be saved by doing so. For instance, they can now propose eliminating the Director of Risk Management position, which has been vacated by Jack Hanbury, and redirecting the $140,000 expended on Hanbury's salary into three faculty positions. A well thought-out response will make Thames regret dreaming up his memo.

On Wednesday May 12, Thames convened the first meeting of his President's University Council, which consists of 18 faculty, student, and staff representatives hastily chosen by the deans. The much-ballyhooed council consumed an agenda-less hour, which was taken up with communication workshop exercises, directed by a functionary from Human Resources,and films about the need to accept organizational change. Here is how a visitor to the meeting described it on the Fire Shelby message board:

Her talk was about - you guessed it - communicating. She promptly asked for two volunteers from the mostly stone-faced membership of PUC. After some hesitation and additional nudging - yes, just like in the kindergarten - two people stepped forward and received brief whispered instructions on what to do. One volunteer left the room and the second started approximately like this:"Turn your notepad to an empty page. Now take a pencil and draw a horizontal rectangle about 1.5" by 2.5" in the middle of the page, a little to the left. Now connect the upper left corner with the lower right corner and then do the same with the other two corners. So you will have a kind of X sign in the rectangle. Now draw a vertical rectangle, about 1 by 3, on the left side of the horizontal one, so that they touch." It would be too draining to go through the details. At the end we were supposed to have about 4 or 5 rectangular shapes in some kind of pattern. My guess is that this was supposed to show the importance and - at the same time - lability of verbal communication (the volunteer was not allowed to use hands, just words).

Attempts by a couple of the representatives to bring up real concerns were deflected by a Thames supporter as"rehashing old issues." The best one-sentence summary came from another message board contributor:"This meeting sounds like something fit for Saturday Night Live."

It is possible that USM's genuine problems will get discussed at a subsequent PUC meeting, but no one ought to bank on it. Seen purely as a public relations move, it was a mixed success. The Biloxi Sun Herald published a credulous treatment; the Hattiesurg American countered with a skeptical editorial.

On Thursday May 13, the Thames administration announced the formation of Noetic Technologies, a private company under exclusive contract to the university to market patented inventions developed at USM or given to it by corporate donors. The venture is described as the"marketing arm" of the USM Research Foundation, which in turn is controlled by Angie Dvorak.

The issues raised when universities get into the intellectual property business are serious and complex, and really need an extended discussion of their own. So do the conflicts of interest that arise when full-time, permanent employees of a university open profit-making businesses that market products related to their work for the university. But what makes Noetic Technologies stand out is that its principals are not researchers. All three are full-time administrators, hired since Thames took over.

Les Goff, the President and CEO of Noetic Technologies, is also the Director of Innovation and Business Ventures at USM, reporting to Vice President for Research Angie Dvorak; Goff's wife, Sarah Morgan, is an Assistant Professor of Polymer Science, also recently hired under the Thames regime. Kelli Booth, another principal in Noetic, is the Coordinator for Marketing Development in Polymer Science; her husband, Ken Malone, holds multiple offices under Thames, mostly prominently as"Chief Operating Officer" at the Gulf Park satellite campus and Chair of the Department of Economic Development. The third principal in Noetic is Vance Flosenzier, the recently hired Director of Process Technology in the Department of Economic Development; his wife Diana Flosenzier is a Grant Proposal Specialist in Polymer Science. Vance Flosenzier is also one of several administrators whose salary and source of funding Thames recently refused to disclose to the Faculty Senate.

Friday May 14 was graduation day at USM. Protests weren't loud, but they did take place. Some students refused to shake Shelby Thames' hand after receiving their diplomas. One of the many faculty members now leaving USM unfurled a"No Quarter" banner; derived from a statement by William Lloyd Garrison, this has become the leading anti-Thames slogan.

In my next entry, I'll try to answer a question that brings sorrow to nearly everyone in the USM community, and puzzlement to outside observers: Given his long track record of alienating colleagues, and performing disastrously in upper administrative positions, why did the Mississippi College Board pick Thames as President in 2002? And why is a slim majority on the Board still supporting him, despite the pounding he is now taking in the media, and the major damage he has inflicted on the university?

In the meantime, follow the breaking news on the Web site of the USM chapter of the American Association of University Professors.

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melissa ellis whiting - 5/26/2004

Great post - I really enjoy reading all of them.