USM: Thames in Trouble, but Still in Office
Today USM's infamous President, Shelby Thames, made his belated appearance before the Insitutions of Higher Learning Board in Jackson, Mississippi. (Still unexplained is his absence yesterday, and the Board's last-minute summons to Provost Jay Grimes to stand in for him.)
Although Thames was called before the Board to explain how he had allowed the University of Southern Mississippi to go off course in its efforts to secure reaccreditation from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, the Board dealt with the entire matter in executive session. Apparently, the mere fact that many were calling for Thames' prompt dismissal converted accreditation into a personnel matter.
Unfortunately, there is no such danger. Instead of firing Thames for failing to inform it about two and a half years of trouble with SACS, the Board toothlessly announced that it was going to develop a policy requiring that the universities in the system keep it informed.
The Board's President, Roy Klumb, acted as though everything would have been fine had the media not revealed that USM was in trouble over accreditation:
The rapid spread of news about the probation disappointed Klumb.
"If this is not USM or this is not Dr. Thames, you guys (the media) might not have even heard about this or learned about it until January when the actual written report came out," he said.
Perhaps Klumb, who is said to have preferred an appointment to the Mississippi Fish and Game Commission over a place on the College Board, simply does not grasp the importance of accreditation. Or perhaps, as I have suggested in some past entries, he and his allies are secretly bent on demolishing USM--in which case they are actually looking forward to the day in September 2005 when it could very well lose its accreditation.
Two members of the Board did criticize Thames in public. Virginia Shanteau Newton blasted Thames' failure of leadership on accreditation:
"I am deeply disturbed we find ourselves in this situation," she said."I find it deplorable."
Newton continued:"This is the worst possible situation for USM to be in."
Board member D.E. Magee also questioned Thames. He compared SACS to the IRS.
"If this was the IRS you would have been on it," he said.
But Newton, who was the only Board member to vote against hiring Thames in 2002, and McGree are in the distinct minority. The rest of the Board either defers to Klumb or is actively allied with him.
Has Thames learned anything? Here is a quote from the Jackson Clarion-Ledger:"'I'm the guy who's ultimately responsible,' Thames said after the sometimes-tense meeting. 'I'll fix it.'" After this reassuring declaration, Thames and his special assistant in charge of accreditation, Joan Exline, jetted off to Atlanta to talk to Gerald Lord, the SACS official who serves as a liason to USM.
Of course, Thames will not fix the problem, precisely because it was his managerial incompetence that brought it about in the first place. His assertion of responsibility cannot be trusted when he kept making excuses all the way through the Board meeting:
Thames reiterated earlier statements that while he was aware there was a problem, his staff didn't tell him how serious it was.
The Hattiesburg American remains on the case, doggedly ripping up one version of Thames' excuses after another. (In some versions, he has denied knowing that there were any difficulties with SACS at all.) Another one of today's articles by Kevin Walters shows that Thames was notified by letter on two occasions that USM was in trouble with SACS. Both letters were addressed to him personally, not to the Provost or some lesser functionary.
The first was dated January 10, 2003. It specified what USM needed to do to be in compliance with SACS' requirements and warned that in less than two years, the university could be on probation or worse. Thames must have been too busy planning to fire all of his deans and hire more hatchetpeople to take note.
A second letter, dated January 16, 2004, repeated exactly where USM was deficient and demanded a report by September 22 of this year. Apparently Thames was preoccupied with reading intercepted emails from Frank Glamser and Gary Stringer and attending vitally important meetings about getting rid of tenured professors who dared to criticize him or his top administrators.
The fact that both of these letters were presented to the entire IHL Board during today's meeting by the Interim Commissioner of Higher Education--yet Thames kept his job--is proof that the fix is in. The Board seems determined to back Thames no matter how much damage he inflicts on USM.
Faculty members at USM, staff people, and administrators not initiated into the Thames henchcrew, are now faced with the terrible choice I alluded to a few days ago. They can pull together and provide what USM needs to get off probation, only to prolong the misrule of Shelby Thames, who will keep right on despising the very people who saved him. Or they can look for jobs elsewhere, doing everything in their power to escape from Hattiesburg before September 2005.
That many professors at USM seek the alternatives in these stark terms was made very clear yesterday evening, during an emergency meeting of the Faculty Senate. Joan Exline exhorted everyone to pitch in:
"Assessment isn't something that's top down,"..."It's everybody. I'm asking you, regardless of your feelings, to pull together and fix this."
She was met with appreciable skepticism:
The perceived communication gap will keep some colleagues from volunteering for teams being set up to work on accreditation, said Dave Duhon, managing and marketing associate professor.
"I don't think we're going to have a lot of faculty jumping to volunteer because their previous experience wasn't fruitful," he said.
That's precisely the response she deserved. She will continue to deserve it, so long as Shelby F. Thames remains in office.
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