Tierdrop by Tierdrop: The Decline of the University of Southern Mississippi
On Thursday and Friday of last week, the University of Southern Mississippi was closed, in anticipation of a direct hit by Hurricane Ivan. As it turned out, Ivan was deflected to the east and USM's buildings and grounds were spared major damage. But no one has yet found a way to deflect President Shelby F. Thames, who remains hard at work tearing USM down from within.
We could measure the decline in a number of ways; for instance, in donors alienated, or in faculty who have fled into early retirement or taken jobs at other universities. But the most widely visible indication of decline is USM's position in the latest US News and World Report rankings, which were published last month.
US News classifies USM as one of 248"national universities." Up through 2003, it was placed in the third tier, which would rank it somewhere between 130th and 186th (US News does not publish exact ranks for institutions below the second tier). By way of comparison, Ole Miss and Mississippi State, generally regarded as the two top institutions in the Mississippi state university system, are in the third tier. This year USM has dropped into the fourth tier.
I believe that some of Shelby Thames' political sponsors are privately applauding the drop in the rankings. But there is no reason to think that Thames, a man of enormously swelled head who endlessly claims"world class" status for one or another favored aspect of USM, is consciously aiming at any such outcome. In any event the underlying agenda is the sort that can't be publicized.
So what is left to do, but make excuses and offload blame?
On August 21, when asked to account for the tierdrop, Thames' spokesperson Lisa Mader flopped and floundered in desperate improvisation:
"We are proud to be ranked among schools like Alabama and Michigan in the U.S. News and World Report ranking," Southern Miss spokeswoman Lisa Mader said Friday."We are a Carnegie I Research Extensive university that ranks in the Class I Southern Regional Education Board ra`nkings. The Carnegie status places us among an elite group of universities across the nation."
Unfortunately for Mader, the Carnegie classification is a function of doctoral degrees granted and grant funding for research, not of program quality. And the Universitiy of Michigan is in the first tier of the US News rankings, while the University of Alabama is in the second. It's Southern Alabama and Central Michigan that sit down in the fourth tier.
Confronted with the revelation that USM's graduate programs were not rated at all this year, because the relevant questionnaire had not been returned to US News, Mader couldn't dodge fast enough:
"We do not show receipt of a survey from U.S. News and World Report," Mader said."Obviously if we didn't receive it, we didn't complete it and return it."
US News addresses such questionnaires directly to the president's office.
On September 2, Thames convened another meeting of his President's Council. He assembled the PC in May to create the semblance of cooperation with faculty and staff, and to avoid the ongoing embarrassment of communicating with a Faculty Senate that had voted by an overwhelming margin to ask him to resign. The PC has largely accepted Thames' promises at face value (for instance, when he declared he would no longer read an employee's email without prior approval from a committee). But on this occasion Thames had Ray Folse to reckon with. Folse is a Professor of Physics who decided to put off retiring for a year.
Folse pointedly asked Thames how Lisa Mader's false statements were affecting the university's credibility with the public. In a portion of his speech unfortunately not quoted in the newspaper, Folse went on to note that Mader purported to be the spokesperson for the entire university, not Thames' personal press secretary. He asked on what basis Mader pretended to speak for the faculty. She could have told the press that President Shelby F. Thames was happy to see USM ranked with Alabama A&M and Central Michigan, Folse said, and under those circumstances no one could complain of being misled.
Now that it is providing a forum for such challenges, observers wonder how much longer the President's Council will last before Thames orders it disbanded, or just quits attending the meetings.
In his open letter to USM dated September 7, Thames was still in full cover-up mode:
I'm sure many of you have heard about Southern Miss' drop in the rankings of the U.S. News and World Report from a third-tier university to a fourth-tier university. This matter was discussed during the President's Council meeting. It was reported that immediately upon notification of the ranking, we began looking into what caused the drop. After officials at the magazine were contacted, it was confirmed that portions of the information requested were not sent from the Office of the Provost. We also verified that our university did not send in our graduate program report. This is a most unfortunate situation that cannot be allowed to happen again. It is inexcusable that complete and accurate information requested was not provided to the U.S. News and World Report. We must make certain that such an omission will not happen again. We will be in discussions with all components of our university to ensure accuracy and accountability of data retrieval and reporting.
Ultimately, it is the responsibility of the President to see that such information is provided. At most universities, the Institutional Research office plays a major role in collecting and organizing the data needed to respond to US News and World Report. But at USM Institutional Research is in complete disarray. The office was gutted once by Thames' immediate predecessor, Horace Fleming. Thames proceeded to gut it again in the Fall of 2002, when IR employees arrived at work one Monday morning to find that the locks on their office doors changed, and campus security ready to escort them all from the building.
Rather than admit that he had pummeled his Institutional Research office until it barely functioned, Thames chose to scapegoat Tim Hudson, the former Provost on the main campus. Little matter that Hudson, who many believe harbored aspirations to take over the presidency, had virtually no authority remaining during his last year at USM, because Thames was determined to keep his rival out of the important decisions. Hudson left in late July to become President of the University of Houston-Victoria.
The Interim Provost, Jay Grimes, who until recently was a fifth-wheel academic administrator at USM's Gulf Park campus (his title there was"Provost" but he never seemed to be in control of academic affairs) took the only step that he could to protect himself. On September 9, he announced by email that Institutional Research would no longer report to him, as he was turning its direction over to one of the Special Assistants to the President.
The tierdrop once again signals the utter incompetence of the Thames administration at anything that approximates running a university. But then it is doubtful that Thames' chief sponsor, IHL Board Chair Roy Klumb, expects competence, or would be pleased to see any on display.
Whether the questionnaires get answered on time or not, under Shelby Thames USM is going to keep sliding downward in the US News rankings. Except that another tierdrop is out of the question, so long as USM keeps qualifying as a national university. But if Polymer Science were packed up and moved to Roy Klumb's favorite institution, Mississippi State, and USM's other doctoral programs were shut down or deaccredited... then new roads would open. There are four full tiers in the rankings for Master's level universities in the Southern region. Imagine the jubilation among Thames' sponsors should USM drop into a new third tier (shared with Austin Peay and Alcorn State) or a new fourth tier (alongside Troy State-Dothan and Southeastern Louisiana). Wouldn't Roy Klumb and the IHL Board would feel obliged to honor Shelby Thames with an on-campus colossus?
More news about USM will follow in the next two or three days. For updates, check the message board of the AAUP chapter at USM.