The Board No Longer Trusts Shelby Thames, So Why Is He Still President of USM?
To avoid further sanctions from its accrediting body, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, the University of Southern Mississippi will have to turn in a report that adequately covers all of the areas of institutional effectiveness that it has neglected to assess over the past two and a half years. The report is due on August 2, 2005.
At its meeting last Thursday, the Mississippi Institutions of Higher Learning Board of Trustees left Shelby Thames in office as President of USM, despite documented evidence that
- he had been notified on 4 different occasions (June 2002, September 2002, January 2003, and January 2004) that USM was in trouble with SACS
- he lied to Board members and the media when he denied receiving any warnings
- he withheld information about the existence of the problems from the Board from June 2002, shortly after he took office, until December 6, 2004, when SACS decided to put USM on probation.
One person Thames evidently isn't fooling is Richard Crofts, Mississippi's interim IHL Commissioner:
"I think institutions that get this kind of letter would not think this is subtle," Crofts told Thames and members of the College Board on Thursday."If you put this letter (dated Jan. 16 ) with the policy on sanctions, it's pretty clear that there's a moment of truth coming for the University of Southern Mississippi."
During the Board meeting, Thames was finally constrained to quit dodging and admit that he had actually seen the warning letter of January 16, 2004. In fact, he had written"T.H., your task--report to KC" across the top of it. T.H. meant Tim Hudson, who at the time was the Provost on the Hattiesburg Campus. KC stood for"kitchen cabinet," i.e., Thames'"president's cabinet" minus non-administrators, like the Faculty Senate President. Whether Hudson ended up giving a report to the Kitchen Cabinet or not, Thames paid no further attention to the matter.
Crofts further made it clear that SACS officials were displeased with Thames' dodging, particularly his complaints to the media that they hadn't given him adequate warning.
[Crofts] spoke with SACS executive director James T. Rogers on Wednesday night and told board members there is"a little bit of concern at SACS" about newspaper stories that have appeared since the probation that quote Thames and Exline as being surprised by news of the probation and how there may have been missing communication between SACS and Southern Miss [between 1997 and 2001]...
"I assured the executive director that this board was going to take an active role in this," Crofts said."And this was not a problem that belongs to SACS. This is a problem that belongs to us."
The Board further signaled its distrust of Thames and his administration by directing Crofts to bring in an outside consultant to monitor USM's progress with accreditation.
In an editorial on Saturday, the Hattiesburg American bluntly asked
How did University of Southern Mississippi President Shelby Thames miss the warning signs?
It's a fair question, especially in light of two letters Thames received from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, the accrediting organization that placed Southern Miss on one-year probation earlier this month.
The conclusion was unsparing:
The warning signs were there, but Thames missed them.
Consequently, Southern Miss officials are scrambling to fix - at considerable cost to taxpayers - a problem they should have started addressing years ago.
While USM is not the first public 4-year institution in over 50 years to be in danger of losing SACS accreditation (as a consultant, perhaps thinking only of universities in Mississippi, incautiously declared to Kevin Walters of the Hattiesburg American), such cases are infrequent. In the neighboring state of Alabama, Auburn just emerged from a year of probation, and in Louisiana, Grambling and the University of Louisiana-Monroe came off probation recently. (At all three institutions, the first step taken to correct the problem was firing the president.)
On Sunday, the American endorsed the Board's decision to hire an outside consultant.In its Saturday editorial, the Jackson Clarion-Ledgerobjected to the cost of both the outside consultant and Thames' hand-picked Director of Assessment:
...USM should be about fixing the situation and the state College Board should be insisting that it is done. It's that simple.
Well, one would think so. Instead, USM President Shelby Thames and the College Board are turning the effort to get USM out of the accreditation dog house into a costly production in itself.
While the editorial turned up the heat on Thames and the Board, it unfortunately stopped short of calling for Thames' removal from office.
Letters to the editor at the two newspapers are running sharply against Thames. Here's one from the Hattiesburg American. On Tuesday of this week, the Clarion-Ledger ran no fewer than 6 letters on the USM crisis. One from the president of USM's Faculty Senate criticized Thames and henchcrew for grossly neglecting accreditation. Four called for hisimmediateouster. One feebly accused professors of"ganging on" the poor defenseless Thames.
I wish I could say something complimentary about the third newspaper that covers USM, the Biloxi Sun-Herald. But for a couple of years now, the Sun-Herald editorial board has been consistently aligned with Shelby Thames and the Board member who is his loudest remaining sponsor, Roy Klumb. Faced with Thames' severe loss of political capital during the accreditation debacle, the paper been handling it the same way Pravda used to deal with plane craches. It refuses to put its own reporter on the story, yet it won't carry Kevin Walters' articles, either.
Since nothing related to SACS accreditation is going to happen over the holidays, USM has slightly under 7 months to get its house in order. The IHL Board, now distrusts Thames enough to feel a need to monitor his performance. One observer now counts 4 trustees in favor of firing Thames, 4 who question his competence but are still reluctant to own up to the Board's failure and call for his ouster, and 4 (led, of course, by Roy Klumb) who keep protecting him. If the Board wants to ensure that degrees from USM do not become worthless, it should promptly finish the job by getting rid of Shelby Thames and sending Richard Crofts, who has extensive adminstrative experience in several state university systems, to Hattiesburg as USM's interim president.
By ordering USM to hire an external consultant with expertise in SACS matters, the Board has already done one thing that Thames would never have done on his own. No way would he spend an extra dime on administrative functions unless it expanded the roster of administrators and staff people loyal to Shelby Freland Thames.
But if the cost of hiring a SACS consultant seems prohibitive (they do charge $600 a day), it can be covered out of funds saved elsewhere. USM could start by abolishing the position of university spokesperson. Lisa Mader pulls down $77,000 a year to represent Shelby Freland Thames, while pretending to speak for the University of Southern Mississippi. Not only has Mader repeatedly fed reporters false or misleading statements, her effectiveness with the media is skating close to zero; during the probation crisis she has essentially vanished from the news stories.
If further resources are needed, USM can get rid of the separate position of Director of the Research Foundation that Thames hastily created in June to tide over Angeline Dvorak, after she had to be removed as Vice-President for Research and Economic Development. Now that she has become the President of the Area Development Partnership, Dvorak will be making her delayed departure from USM's payroll a week from now--and her former salary of $150,000 per year will purchase well over 7 months of expert SACS consulting.
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