Blogs > Liberty and Power > World Class Hype: The Economic Development Program at USM

Aug 8, 2005 1:03 pm

World Class Hype: The Economic Development Program at USM

So many things have gone wrong during Shelby Thames' two and a half years of misrule at the University of Southern Mississippi that I haven't been able to cover them all. Of those remaining, surely the most important is the Thames administration's emphasis on economic development.

When Thames, 16 years after being fired from his last administrative post, was campaigning to be chosen as President of USM, he promised to make economic development the university's number one priority. After taking power, he boasted in puff pieces like this one that he had had reoriented the university's entire mission toward economic development. (In a piece of classically Thamesian misrepresentation, the article proclaims that USM's School of Polymer Science is"ranked in the top 10 such schools nationally and boasts 6 professors who were recruited directly from private industry." It might be a little harder to shoot fish in a barrel than to achieve this distinction, because there are well under 10 departments or schools of Polymer Science in the United States. The kind of research in which Thames specializes is usually done in departments of Chemistry or Chemical Engineering--which are not adverse to hiring distinguished researchers with a track record in industry.)

So no one should be surprised to find USM administrators on the fast track to power-- such as former VP for Research Angeline Dvorak, former Provost Tim Hudson, and ongoing occupier of multiple offices Ken Malone--all staking their ambitions on one slender little department... which, of course, was called Economic Development.

The Economic Development program originated in 1998, when Horace Fleming was president of USM. It was housed in the College of International and Continuing Education, which consisted mostly of support bureaucracy, but had managed to grab up one preexisting academic department (Geography) and start another (Economic Development). At one time Tim Hudson was the Dean of CICE. In January 2003, Thames announced his reorganization of 9 colleges into 5, which did away with CICE and relocated Economic Development in what had been known as the College of Business but was now to be called the College of Business and Economic Development.

Now that Thames' legacy includes putting USM into free fall down through the 4th tier of national universities in the US News rankings, and incurring probation from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, the Economic Development story needs to be told. For just recently the academic program on which Thames and several members of his crew have put top priority was endangering the accreditation of several other degree programs at the university.

The Thames administration appears to believe that no activity at USM (with the possible exception of research in Thames' home area, Polymer Science) could ever outshine the marvelous achievements of the graduate progam in Economic Development. The breathless tone of this USM press release, dated August 29, 2003, is typical (my boldface added):

One specific plan that came from the [August 29] meeting is the idea of"branding" the Southern Miss Department of Economic Development as the economic development department of the United States. This is fitting, as Southern Miss is the only university in the nation to offer a master's and doctorate in economic development....
"We have a president (Dr. Shelby Thames) who has made economic development a mission of the university, and the only vice president of research and economic development (Dr. Angeline Dvorak) of any university in the country," Malone said."Also, we have a newly formed College of Business and Economic Development, which increases the important synergy of business and economic development curriculum."

The proclamation is quaintly dated in one respect: after two senior faculty members caught her misrepresenting her credentials and Thames plunged the university into a major scandal by trying to fire them, Angie Dvorak was compelled to vacate her purportedly unique administrative position. In point of fact, many state universities now talk up economic development, in the hope that if it does not induce the state legislature to give them more money, it will entice various industries to increase their financial support. Clemson University presently attaches"and Economic Development" to the title of the Vice-President for Research; so do many others.

More to the point, there is nothing new or unusual about graduate programs in economic development. Courses in the subject been taught in business schools and economics programs for over 50 years; the oldest Economic Development course at USM was and is taught by economics professors. What's more, by the time USM got in on the act in 1998, there were graduate programs in Economic Development all over the United States. They can be found at the University of North Texas, the University of Southern New Hampshire, Penn State, and Vanderbilt, just to name a few.

The only unusual features of USM's program are its questionable quality and its determination not to hire anyone with a background in economics or the business disciplines. Reliable information is hard to obtain because Economic Development is run in near-total secrecy by Ken Malone, a Thames protégé who, after the forced exits of Jack Hanbury, Angeline Dvorak, and Mark Dvorak, has become his number one hatchet wielder. But none of those who are publicly identified as Economic Development faculty appear to hold degree in economics, management, marketing, finance, or other B School disciplines. And the manner in which students are recruited for the doctoral program in International Development (they are told that their presence on the USM campus will be required on just a few occasions) does nothing to restore confidence in the program's academic standards. The online survey that USM uses to promote the program needs to be seen to be believed.

The Department of Economic Development and Planning, as it is officially denominated, lists three faculty members on its Web page. A fourth faculty member has been on the USM payroll since August but has yet to rate a spot on the page.

The director of the PhD progam in International Development is David Butler, who has been an Assistant Professor of Economic Development at USM since the fall semester of 2001. Butler's MS and PhD are in Geography. For the past two years, since he became the director of the program, he has taught 2 graduate courses per semester in International Economic Development, and published in related disciplines. His big project these days, duly ballyhoed by Thames' publicity machine, is promoting the growth of call centers in southern Mississippi.

Richard Hadden was hired in October 2003 as USM's"Director of Strategic Venture Development." Hadden holds a medical degree and used to be a practicing physician. He has experience with high-tech startup companies, not all of them in the biomedical field, but no training in economics or business. What contributions he actually makes to the academic program are entirely unknown to the rest of the world, as he lists no courses or other instructional activity on his vita. Program secrecy has grown tighter since Angie Dvorak's vita came under public scrutiny in January 2004, and Hadden's qualifications to be a faculty member were widely questioned as well.

Mark Miller is a Professor of Economic Development. His discipline is geography and he apparently has been involved with the program since its inception. When Thames took the throne in May 2002, Miller was the Dean of the College of International and Continuing Education. As one of the 9 deans fired in January 2003, Miller was put in the department of Economic Development, which, in turn, was moved into the new College of Business and Economic Development. Sources on the business faculty say that Miller was the only Economic Development professor to enjoy the respect of other faculty in the College of Business.

In August 2004, Judson Edwards, then the economic development director for Phenix City, Alabama, was hired to direct the Masters program in Economic Development. According to a USM press release, he got his Masters degree and his Ph.D. in Economic Development from... how about that?... USM. His prior academic experience consisted of one semester as an Assistant Professor of Geography at the University of North Dakota-Grand Forks.

The Economic Development department has also proven to be a convenient parking spot for upper-level administrators.

The Department Chair is Ken Malone, who holds a USM Ph.D. in Polymer Science and spent several years in industry working as a chemist; his publications are all in that field. He was brought on board in November 2002 to recruit companies for an industrial park that USM was establishing, but his position stretched and morphed as Malone collected multiple job titles. His most significant administrative assignment is as"Chief Operating Officer" of the Gulf Park satellite campus, where the International Development PhD program was recently relocated. Malone's vita lists no courses taught since Thames hired him--and no publications of any sort since 1998.

Since Thames came to power, USM's Vice-President for Research and Economic Development has automatically been granted a courtesy faculty title in the department. Angie Dvorak was listed as a faculty member (despite her degrees being in Law and English) during her abbreviated and stormy term in office. Her replacement, Cecil Burge, has inherited her listing in Economic Development. He directed one dissertation in Economic Development before becoming VP, but there is no reason to think that he teaches any courses or supervises any dissertations in Economic Development now. (Oddly, Burge, identified as the Vice-President, appears on a second faculty and staff list for the department, dated February 9, 2004, when he didn't replace Angie Dvorak till July 1, 2004. But then USM's Web pages are maintained in an extremely erratic fashion.)

Standing squarely in the way of Thames and Malone's agenda was the fact that colleges of business have to undergo accreditation by an extremely demanding organization called the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business. The Economic Development simply could not remain in the College of Business without either causing the entire college to lose its accreditation, or earning AACSB approval through a massive upgrade involving both major changes to its faculty and a substantial tightening of its academic standards.

So Thames came up with an expedient. According to Janet Braswell's Hattiesburg American story of October 7 (no longer available online without paying a fee):

The University of Southern Mississippi will ask the state College Board to approve splitting its economic development department and dropping"economic development" from the College of Business and Economic Development.
Southern Miss President Shelby Thames wants to shift the department's degree programs so that the College of Business and Economic Development can maintain its accreditation through the American Association of Schools of Business, he said during Wednesday's meeting of the President's Council.
"Because economic development is a new field, there are not a lot of PhDs in the field," Thames said."We want to keep the program going and not impair the accreditation."
The doctoral program in international development will move to the political science department in the College of Arts and Letters. The master's degree programs will move to the College of Science and Technology.

It would be interesting to know how the doctoral program ended up in the college that Thames most despises--perhaps because none of the other colleges wanted it? And of course, the shortage of PhD's in Economic Development was another Thames invention... unless he meant that there weren't enough USM Economic Development PhD's to staff the program.

"We were hoping in the College of Business to actually improve the program and keep the program in the College of Business but I think some people didn't think that was a good idea," said Mark Klinedinst, chair of the economics, finance and international business department."There is actually quite a lot of expertise in the College of Business that would have been of use to people trying to do economic development. It's the natural place."
Several economics professors at Southern Miss hold degrees in economic development but aren't interested in all aspects of the discipline, Klinedinst said.

In its October 12 issue, the USM Student Printz carried a blunt statement from Dean Harold Doty about the danger that the program posed to the College of Business:

"As the program is currently structured and managed, it doesn't meet the overall high standards of the accrediting body," said Doty. The accreditation of the entire college could have been put in jeopardy, he said.

The October 7 article reported eye-popping enrollment figures:

Nine students have received doctoral degrees from the international development program since it was started five years ago, said David Butler, program director. He said 65 students have been accepted or enrolled for the spring semester.
"All of our students are working professionals," Butler said."They come from all over America."...
Approximately 45 students are enrolled in the master's degree program in workforce training and economic development, which will move to the College of Science and Technology, chair Ken Malone said.

Hmm, let's see... assuming Ken Malone really does any faculty work (which is highly doubtful), each of the 5 professors in Economic Development is going to supervise... 9 master's level students and 13 doctoral students, thesis or dissertation included? But each will presumably be paying full graduate tuition (and then some... for the USM administration has talked about assessing a"branding" fee on top of it). So the program can be counted on to generate revenue, as long as USM diplomas are still worth anything.

The boasts about enrollment leave no doubt--the program never had a prayer of meeting AACSB standards, which is why reality belatedly set in and it had to be shipped out of the College of Business. Yet such awkwardness hasn't stopped Malone and Butler from pretending that the program is still there, or that it is accredited by the AACSB. The Department page still claims it's in CBED, while the Masters program pagedoesn't bother to say which college it's in. And as udpated on November 10, 2004, the page for the online executive Ph.D. program in International Economic Development still declares that

The International Development Ph.D. Program is in the College of Business and Economic Development which is accredited by the Association to Advance the Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB) and Southern Association of Colleges (SAC)[sic].

Thames and his crew probably saw the move as part of a shell game. At the October 6 meeting of his President's Council, Thames suggested that Economic Development could be switched back into the College of Business as soon as the AACSB was looking the other way. Thames' press secretary faithtfully echoed him in the October 12 Student Printz article:"[Lisa] Mader said economic development is a changing field, and the program could end up moving back to the College of Business." AACSB accreditation is now being done on a five-year cycle, so there won't be any times that the AACSB isn't looking. Thames was exhibiting the same cavalier attitude toward academic program evaluation and accreditation were about to get him in the soup with the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools.

Adding to the confusion, each version of the official story about the move is different. Here's how Thames described it to the campus on October 25:

Administrative changes included ... relocating the Department of Economic Development and Planning from the College of Business and Economic Development to the College of Science and Technology; relocating the Ph.D. program in International Development from the Department of Economic Development and Planning to the Department of Political Science in the College of Arts and Letters; renaming the Department of Political Science to the Department of Political Science, International Development and International Affairs in the College of Arts and Letters; and renaming the College of Business and Economic Development to the College of Business.

The Political Science Department's Web pages have yet to register any of these momentous occurences--not a single mention of International Development can be found anywhere, even on the Poli Sci News page.

There is a further question mark as to where the Economic Development programs will be physically located in the future. It would take several contorted installments to retell the history of a certain building project on the USM campus--and how the Thames regime first failed to come up with USM's contribution to the project, then"discovered" the needed funds when it looked as though the project was about to fail. Suffice it to say that the Trent Lott Center is named after a US Senator whose mastery of the pork barrel is universally acknowledged. But it does seem apposite that the exclusive future tenant of this $17 million building will be... the Department of Economic Development. All the more reason to pack the maximum density of administrators into the program! Actually, now that the PhD program has been exiled to the Gulf Park satellite campus, it looks as though the Masters program is due to be housed in solitary splendor at the TLC.

Despite the mum's-the-word culture of Economic Development, and his past successes at getting the media to reprint his press releases about it, Shelby Thames has not been able to pull the wool over the eyes of the USM faculty. At a meeting of his President's Council on September 2, Physics Professor Ray Folse challenged Thames to back up his administration's claims about the Economic Development program. Folse specifically indicted Thames' PR machine for the false claims of uniqueness it was incessantly making on behalf of the program. Thames' response: he would have Ken Malone talk to the PC about the Economic Development program at a future meeting.

Instead it was at the next PC meeting on October 6 that the decision to break the program in two and move the pieces was announced. Folse promptly"stated that he he had heard it was being moved for reasons of quality." Thames"said we would have Dr. Malone at a Council meeting to discuss it."

Thames never had the slightest intention of putting Malone in front of informed critics of the Economic Development program, like Folse or Economics Professor Trellis Green. He was just buying time until the IHL Board approved moving the program at its October meeting. As soon as the Board had acted, Thames haughtily reneged on his promise:

Dr. Ray Folse raised questions about the quality of the economic development program and the qualifications of some admitted students, citing discussions and comments with others about this topic. He asked that a representative of the program visit the President's Council and answer questions that might be asked by President's Council members. As a result of this request, I discussed this matter with the administrative cabinet and it was unanimously agreed that academic program review is not the mission of the President's Council. Instead, program review, evaluation and assessment are the responsibility of the provost, deans, departments and appropriate academic entities such as the academic and graduate councils.

Thames' Kitchen Cabinet did what he told it to. In any event, the President's Council has no decision-making authority over anything. Thames just wanted to make sure Ken Malone wouldn't be answering tough questions about the program in front of Kevin Walters, the Hattiesburg American reporter who has been attending the PC meetings regularly.

It suddenly got harder for Thames to get away with his dodges on December 8, when the SACS accreditation crisis hit the newspapers. Over the next week the IHL Board and the public saw Thames tripping over his own lies as he tried to excuse himself from responsibility, while the severity of USM's predicament finally began to sink in. Hardly anyone believes Shelby Thames any more when he blames his administration's failings on others. He is personally responsible for the hype and deceit that have surrounded the Economic Development program during his entire term in office. We can only hope that he will be held fully accountable for these as well.

Stay tuned.

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