Blogs > Liberty and Power > The Designated Demolisher of USM

May 20, 2004 8:54 pm

The Designated Demolisher of USM

Shelby Thames, the tyrannical chief executive of the University of Southern Mississippi, indulges in the comically grandiose rhetoric we have come to expect from university presidents. He never stops talking about"growing" research; he likes to proclaim that USM is a"world class" institution. The cold fact is that most outside observers would rank USM third among the universities in Mississippi.

Thames may believe his own pronouncements; a few of his more gullible supporters may participate in the delusion. But he could not have become President of USM in 2002 , or remain in the job today, without the sponsorship of a majority on the Mississippi Institution of Higher Learning Board of Trustees. (Insiders say that this is a narrow majority, perhaps just 7 of the 12 trustees.) And a world-class University of Southern Mississippi is decidedly not what his sponsors on the Board want. What would be more to their liking is no USM at all.

Demographically and economically, the center of Mississippi has been shifting southward over the past century. Politically, power is still concentrated in northern and central portions of the state. In the state university system, which has been controlled by the present IHL Board since 1932, the University of Mississippi has always come first, Mississippi State (the land-grant, or A and M institution) has come second, then there have been all the rest. For years, in fact, the College Board carried a 13th trustee, who was there merely to vote on matters affecting the University of Mississippi. A lawsuit finally eliminated this particular way of signaling institutional priorities, and cut the number of trustees to the current 12.

Another source of pressure on USM has developed more recently, as community colleges and 2-year tech schools have grown in power in virtually every state. Just four years ago, a major conflict erupted over USM's plans to offer 4-year programs at its Gulf Park campus; this was turf that the community colleges on the Gulf Coast wanted to keep for themselves. Although USM won, the fight was bloody enough that it may have hastened the departure of Horace Fleming, USM's president from 1996 to 2001, and helped to pave the way for Thames' accession.

USM, which grew slowly from a teachers' college into a regular 4-year institution and finally into a university, has a blighted history even by Mississippi standards. As late as the early 1970s, the College Board was under the firm control of M. M. Roberts, an unrepentant White supremacist who blocked campus appearances by speakers affiliated with the Civil Rights movement long after the universities had been compelled to integrate. (USM's football stadium is named after him.) From 1955 to 1975, USM was under the iron control of General William McCain. While USM expanded during the McCain years, its faculty, staff, and students lived under a bizarre autocracy vividly commemorated in a 1982 book titled Exit 13, whose author, Monte Piliawsky, had the misfortune to be a junior faculty member at USM from 1970 to 1972.

Thames likes to pose as a forward-looking thinker, but when he is driven by anything besides sheer narcissism, it is a hankering for the USM of two generations past: a place with narrow horizons, no longer a college but not truly a university. He longs for an institution whose inmates will resign themselves to his tyranny because they are scarcely cognizant of better working conditions anywhere else. Thames learned from General McCain how to suppress dissent and run the faculty through a revolving door. He has fond memories of the day when there was no Faculty Senate, professors so foolish as to think they had academic freedom were quickly made to take their foolishness somewhere else, and the President censored the student newspaper or dissolved a Student Government that displeased him. Amidst the hullabaloo about his Vice-President's inflated resume, Thames no doubt remembers how McCain was caught plagiarizing two Master's theses nearly word-for-word in a journal article on Mississippi history, and got away scot-free.

Roy Klumb (and Carl Nicholson, a die-hard Thames supporter whose term on the Board recently ended) often come across like reactionaries pining for the Southern Miss of the McCain era. When Klumb proclaims, as he did on TV two weeks ago, that Thames was appointed to" clean house" at USM, he reminds the listener of M. M. Roberts longing to" clean house," so no outsiders would be allowed to speak on Mississippi state campuses, and African-American students couldn't write for student newspapers and criticize the administration. But we shouldn't be so hasty... For Klumb is a graduate of Mississippi State. And as two stories in today's newspapers indicate, he insists on the urgent need to get rid of the Athletic Director at his alma mater (over the wishes of Miss State's president), while denying any need to remedy the devastation that Shelby Thames has visited on USM.

Wherever Klumb and Nicholson stand, there can be little doubt about the other 5 (or more) trustees who supported Thames, and have yet to waver. They are not committed to the success of USM. Quite the contrary; they sense a threat to the hegemony of Ole Miss and Miss State. Thames is their best shot at neutralizing that threat: removing it from the scene entirely, or preparing a few interesting remnants for takeover by a favored institution. For instance, Miss State, which fervently resisted certifying Thames' treasured Polymer Science as an Engineering program, might be prevailed on to scoop that fragment up from the wreckage, once Thames is done smashing.

The Board would not have included anyone with Thames' atrocious management record on the short list for the Presidency of Ole Miss or Miss State. McCain allowed Thames to start his Polymer Science unit at USM after he had so thoroughly antagonized his colleagues in Chemistry that they voted unanimously to expel him from the department. Yet Thames was later elevated to a Vice President position, which he was allowed to retain after all but one of the administrators who reported to him gave President Aubrey Lucas their frank judgment that he was incapable of ever becoming a good manager. In 1986, after they had suffered under his yoke for two or three more years, Lucas finally fired him from an Executive Vice President position, on account of a scandal that has always been hushed up. When the Board turned to Thames in 2002, he had not held an upper administrative post for 16 years, and virtually no one at USM considered him fit for one.

Nor would members of the College Board be encouraging letter writers to denounce the faculty of Ole Miss or Miss State as lazy, unproductive, good-for-nothing whiners (as can be seen here, or in the letter by Williamson here). Indeed, the average USM faculty member teaches more Student Credit Hours, for less pay, than the average professor at Ole Miss or Miss State. Yet Shelby Thames has put out an appeal for such letters to the editor through the USM Alumni Association, whose official stand is neutrality on the major controversies of his Presidency. Roy Klumb has further encouraged such activity with his remarks in the media about" cleaning house" and his derogatory references to the"tenure club."

The Board members who favor Thames would not be installing presidents at Ole Miss or Miss State to purge the administration, faculty, and staff, and bark edicts at those they hadn't fired or run off. That is because they want Ole Miss and Miss State to prosper--and they want USM to fail.

Governing Boards of state universities inevitably make decisions on a political basis. Some believe that with 8 component insitutions, the state university system is overbuilt, in relation to the population and wealth of Mississippi. This may be true--but the only way to know for sure whether a state university system is overbuilt is to spin off the institutions and see how well they function, and how they change, after they become private. There is, however, no talk on the Board about letting USM sink or swim on its own, without either state appropriations or Board control. And the Board can't tear USM down unless it maintains control. It is clear, in any event, that the real agenda of the pro-Thames majority will not go over especially well in the southern third of Mississippi. I doubt it would go over well with Shelby Thames, if he could step out of his egomania long enough to appreciate the true nature of his political support.

The Mississippi College Board is meeting today; when its meeting continues tomorrow, it will be hearing a report from Shelby Thames about the"progress" that he is bringing to the University of Southern Mississippi. I will follow, in a day or two, with a report on the Board's response (and other significant events for USM during the week). Till then, check the USM AAUP Web site for the latest news.

Update--Thursday May 20, 9:03 PM. After the College Board heard Thames' report in a lengthy closed session, Roy Klumb, its President, announced this afternoon that the Board was continuing to support him. At this point the damage that Thames has done is clear and frank, and the divisions between him and the USM faculty are irreparable. Apaprently, though, the Board believes that Thames can carry on the rest of his demolition work without drawing too much unfavorable attention from the media. That remains to be seen. I predict that Southern Mississippi is in for a long, hot summer.

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melissa ellis whiting - 5/19/2004

stunning. articulate. thank you for taking a marked interest. this blog is a very respected one -- you give the USM faculty some credibility --- thanks again.