Blogs > Liberty and Power > USM: More Light on Shelby Thames' Failure to Manage Accreditation

Aug 8, 2005 1:03 pm

USM: More Light on Shelby Thames' Failure to Manage Accreditation

The University of Southern Mississippi remains in crisis, after two and a half years of epic mismanagement by President Shelby Thames have led to the university being put on probation by its accrediting body, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools.

A couple of news items in the Hattiesburg American today cast further doubt on the self-excusing narrative that Thames and his personal spinmeister, Lisa Mader, threw together in response to the initial stories about the probation, which appeared just last Thursday.

First, a story by Kevin Walters shows that there was no ominous gap in USM's communications with SACS over reaccreditation between 1997 and 2001. The most innocuous explanation for there being nothing in the file, as I suggested yesterday, is that USM was giving SACS what it needed during that period, so there was no need for further correspondence. Gerald Lord, the SACS official who is handling USM's reaccreditation, made the comment to Walters that"... to have a four-year hiatus, with the exception of routine annual reports, would not be unusual." Joan Exline, Thames' special assistant in charge of the accreditation effort, told the American that"the gap that we were talking about in the communications, that's put to rest." She thereby laid to rest Thames' effort to blame USM's accreditation woes on Horace Fleming, who was the institution's president from 1997 to 2001.

Putting a brave face on it, Exline asserted that"we inherited a situation where assessment of the institutional effectiveness wasn't part of the fabric of daily life at Southern Miss." She failed to note that no recent administrator at USM has been less committed to assessing institutional effectiveness than Shelby Thames. What more could anyone need, as proof of institutional effectiveness, than the fact that Shelby Thames is at the helm? Unless it might be his constant proclamations that USM is a"world class" institution.

Meanwhile, Thames is no longer able to keep his own lies straight. Two day after admitting that he knew of difficulties with SACS during his first year in office, he has reverted to his"nobody told me" excuse:

Thames, who has said he had been told by Provost's Office officials the university's problems with SACS were going to be corrected, said he did not know things were so bad. He said he asked repeatedly about the status of the university's accreditation process, but staff members failed to tell him the truth about where things stood with SACS or that the organization had been scrutinizing Southern Miss for two years prior to putting the school on probation.

Second, Exline announced that USM had hired Joy Hamilton, currently a manager at the university's Center for Applied Research and Evaluation, to a brand-new position as Director of Assessment. Exline let slip that the position had been advertised and candidates interviewed back in November. Let's put aside the question whether Hamilton, whose knowledge of the accreditation process is not documented, was the only candidate actually considered (Shelby Thames has made it a practice to hire upper administrators without a search). The fact that the position came open in November indicates that Thames and company weren't 100% blindsided by the SACS announcement on December 8, as they insisted in their initial press releases. By November 2004, they actually knew they were in trouble.

There is no sympathy for Thames' excuses to be found on the editorial page of the Hattiesburg American. Today's entry opens with these blunt words:

As the state College Board meets this week, there are several serious questions that members must ask both of themselves and of University of Southern Mississippi President Shelby Thames.
Not the least of these is whether Thames' presidency has become too much of a liability for him to effectively lead the school he has served for decades.

The editorial writer has no patience with the"no big deal" attitude expressed by Thames and his supporters:

It would be easy to dismiss this problem as merely a failure to shuffle enough paper. After all, some might reason, it will only take a year and at least $500,000 to fix the problems, and then Southern Miss may return to good standing with SACS.
This line of thinking trivializes what is an amazing lapse of due diligence - one that hasn't occurred at a Mississippi, state-funded, four-year university in at least 20 years based on College Board records.

Unfortunately, Eric Stringfellow's vacillating column in the Jackson Clarion-Ledger buys into the trivializing line. Stringfellow is partly aware of Thames' miserable management record, but seems to think that keeping him in power will guarantee reaccreditation instead of dooming it. And he holds out false hope by noting that Auburn University just emerged successfully from a 12-month SACS probation. He fails to note that Auburn is a much stronger university to begin with--2nd tier in the US News rankings, instead of 4th tier and tumbling downward--or that Auburn's president was promptly fired after the probation was imposed.

To be continued.

For the latest, as always, check the AAUP-USM message board.

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