Blogs > Liberty and Power > Resolution at USM?

Apr 29, 2004 6:10 pm

Resolution at USM?

Yesterday the appeal hearing took place for Gary Stringer and Frank Glamser, the two tenured professors at the University of Southern Mississippi who were fired on March 5 by President Shelby Thames.

The hearing was surprisingly anticlimactic. It lasted less than a day, instead of the two days that were allotted for it, and the only actual testimony, by Thames, was presented in the morning. The afternoon was consumed by lengthy settlement negotiations, followed by two 30-minute statements by the two professors. And in the sort of outcome that makes only lawyers and judges happy, the terms of the settlement remain secret--for now. What's more, there is doubt about the timing of the next meeting of the Mississippi College Board, which has to act on the recommendation that resulted from the hearings.

As far as coverage goes, the radio broadcast on WUSM was valuable to those who hear it over the air--but server capacity was hopelessly inadequate, and very few users could access the webcast. The Hattiesburg American ran updates every 15 to 20 minutes on its Web site, but they were slow going up, often seemed biased in favor of President Thames' side of the proceedings, and committed elementary errors like quoting from emails without giving the dates. (The articles in today's Hattiesburg American are much better.) A couple of contributors to Fire Shelby's message board did a far better job of tracking the proceedings than the newspaper did.

After opening statements, Shelby Thames took the stand. Three cardboard boxes full of intercepted emails accompanied him. Most of his testimony consisted of reading from Gary Stringer's emails and claiming that they proved Stringer was out to get one of Thames' Vice-Presidents, Angelina Dvorak, at all costs. By his own statement, Thames ordered Stringer and Glamser's email monitored in mid-January 2004, after hearing that stories were about to run in the media, indicating that Dvorak had never received tenure at a 4-year institution and was therefore unqualified to evaluate USM faculty for tenure and promotion (at USM, the VP for Research and Economic Development is routinely involved in these decisions). But Thames read from emails dating as far back as May 2003, which means that either the monitoring actually started earlier, or emails were taken off the hard drive to Stringer's computer (very possibly before he was fired on March 5).

It emerged that Stringer began to be concerned about Dvorak's credentials in May 2003, when a colleague in the English Department was turned down for tenure because of Dvorak's negative evaluation (on the grounds that he was not doing enough to promote"economic development"). There was some curiosity at that point about Dvorak's having been an Associate Professor of English (as she claimed) at the University of Kentucky. Over the next few months, Stringer made some inquiries, and in December 2003, he notified the USM chapter of the American Association of University Professors about his concerns; he also notified Thames (in a letter that Thames never responded to or acknowledged) that he thought Dvorak had misrepresented her credentials. Until the AAUP chapter became involved, Glamser had no involvement in investigating Dvorak at all--but he had come to Thames' attention in Fall 2003 when he questioned USM's published enrollment figures, which turned out to have been deliberately inflated to make it appear to be larger than its 3 competitors at the top level of the Mississippi state system.

In January 2004, Stringer obtained a confirmation by email from a senior faculty member in the Department of English at the University of Kentucky that Dvorak had never been tenured in that department. He also sought information on Dvorak from an employee of the Kentucky state community college system, who tipped off Thames'"Director of Risk Management," a lawyer named Jack Hanbury (who just happened to be the former law partner of Mark Dvorak, Angeline's husband). At this point, the wheels obviously began turning, rapidly, to get Stringer and Glamser fired.

Before calling the two professors into his office on March 5, Thames had already notified several members of the Mississippi College Board about his plans to get rid of them. His stated reasons for firing them were:

  • Making untrue statements
  • Engaging in malicious conduct
  • Misusing state property (telephones, computers)
  • Disclosing Dvorak's Social Security Number
  • Insubordinate conduct
  • Unprofessional conduct, consisting of undermining confidence in the administration

The"untrue statements" (besides saying that Dvorak wasn't tenured at the University of Kentucky--and of course that is true) allegedly included representing himself as the Chair of the English Department at USM, which Stringer hadn't done and none of the intercepted emails implied that he was doing. Stringer used Dvorak's SSN in at least one inquiry to a person in the Kentucky state system, but the same SSN was on copies of Dvorak's vita made available to the mass media by Thames' own public relations machine. Since no one had ordered Glamser and Stringer not to check Dvorak's credentials, it is hard to know what their"insubordinate" conduct could consist of-- unless it was their refusal to answer questions put to them by Hanbury the previous day. And the last bullet speaks for itself. By all accounts, Thames had already done a bang-up job of undermining confidence in his administration.

According to observers, Thames' performance on the stand was embarrassing. He incorrectly referred to Hanbury as the university's attorney on two occasions (that would be a fellow named Lee Gore, whom Thames has kept completely out of the loop; Gore reports to the state Attorney General, who probably doesn't care for the slight). He claimed that Stringer was showing"meanness" to Thames, and being untruthful, in an email in which Stringer referred to Thames firing 9 deans during a reorganization and replacing them with 5 new ones (but fire them is what Thames did). He falsely asserted that Stringer"doesn't have to teach classes.'' He failed to recognize the name of a faculty member who had left USM two years before. He insisted that Dvorak didn't need to be tenured to be hired as Vice-President of Research and Economic Development, ignoring the requirements stated in USM's own Faculty Handbook. But he also referred to her as a"faculty member" when she has no faculty appointment at USM. He even claimed that Frank Glamser had bribed Rachel Quinlivan, editor of the USM student newspaper, to run stories unfavorable to his administration in return for favorable letters of recommendation. (Quinlivan, until now strictly a reporter, has now ripped Thames in an editorial that everyone should read.)

After a lunch break, Reuben Anderson, the retired judge who presided over the hearing, summoned each side to meet with him separately, then began shuttling back and forth from one side to the other. Obviously, he was helping to negotiate a settlement. Just after 3 PM, Judge Anderson announced that an agreement had been reached between the parties. Each of the professors was allowed a 30-minute statement to rebut Thames' allegations. Judge Anderson also noted that Shelby Thames would be making a recommendation to the College Board, and that nothing further would be revealed until the Board acted on it.

While the terms of the settlement remain hidden, it is clear that Judge Anderson halted the hearing after Thames testified because he didn't believe that Thames had a case. By doing that, he also spared Thames the further embarrassment of being cross-examined. What's more, only one recommendation will be going to the Board, from Thames, instead of the three initially expected: from Thames, from the University Advisory Council, and from Anderson. Obviously Thames was told what his recommendation was going to be. That, in turn, means that it will not uphold the dismissals of Glamser and Stringer. Beyond that, all remains unclear.

What will happen at the Board level is up in the air. Informed observers believe that Anderson consulted with the Board during the settlement negotiations; some have even speculated that the Board decided in advance to curtail the hearing, but there is no evidence to support that claim so far. On May 8, four old members rotate off the Board and four new ones rotate on. Even more significantly, perhaps, Board members each become President for a year, and May 8, it will be the turn of Roy Klumb, a notorious Thames partisan. Klumb has already announced that if it is up to him, the Board won't meet again until its regular monthly get-together on May 19. Meanwhile, Thames revealed (and several Board members confirmed) that he had discussed his intention of firing Glamser and Stringer with them before he summoned the professors into his office on March 5. So it is possible that elements on the College Board will try to overturn the recommendation that Anderson told Thames to send them.

So, it isn't entirely over for the professors. As for Thames and Dvorak (and other hand-picked members of the Thames administration), their fates remain unknown.

I've chewed up a lot of blogspace with this narrative already, yet there are lots of implications of what's happened at USM. An obvious one has to do with tenure, and attempts to abolish it de facto by firing tenured professors arbitrarily. Another has to do with workplace privacy, and not just in academia. Thames made himself look bad, in most people's eyes, by dragging 3 boxes of intercepted emails to the hearing, but the computer use policies at your typical university will allow administrators to do exactly what he did.

To be continued.

Update at 6:16 PM April 29th: Roy Klumb isn't going to get his way. TV stations in Mississippi have announced that the College Board will meet tomorrow at 1 PM to consider the recommendation that Anderson ordered Thames to make.

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David T. Beito - 4/30/2004

Great coverage. You are really on this.