HATTIESBURG — Because personnel issues are considered confidential, the proceedings that led to Dr. Horace Fleming leaving the helm as president of the University of Southern Missis-sippi were held behind closed doors at meetings of the board of trustees for the Institutions for Higher Learning (IHL).
That has led to a great deal of speculation including allegations that:
• Fleming was done in by a few vocal supporters of USM’s athletics program who were unhappy at budget cuts.
• The College Board’s disfavor was a result of Fleming’s support for expanding USM on the Gulf Coast, and for efforts to get USM a fair share of state funding.
• Fleming had been criticized for spending too much on technology.
The closed-door meetings of the College Board led some newspapers to decry a “veil of secrecy.” And Sen. Billy Hewes III of Gulfport, taking the podium at the recent special legislative session on teacher pay raises, alleged a “cowardly, covert assassination.”
Hewes said that Fleming’s support for a stronger university presence on the Gulf Coast was his downfall.
“To call it a witch hunt would be the understatement of the year,” Hewes said. “What we witnessed was a cowardly, covert assassination.”
Hewes said that what happened was one more example of the institutional bias against South Mississippi that exists at all levels of the government.
“How dare he suggest we provide greater four-year degree access to one of the state’s most populous and underserved regions,” Hewes said.
Hewes offered a mock job description for the new university president that said, “Applicant must not be an individual of strong opinion, character or moral fiber. Must have a demonstrated history as a doormat with a desire to develop those attributes further.”
Hewes and others said the way the Fleming issue was handled undermines the credibility of the College Board, and indicates that reform of the board is way past due. Lt. Gov. Amy Tuck supported such reform to provide more equitable representation for the southern part of the state during a recent speech at the Neshoba County Fair.
Currently only three of the 12 members of the College Board are appointed from south of Interstate 20, and only one, Virginia Shanteau Newton, is a graduate of USM. Newton was the only College Board member to advocate giving Fleming a four-year contract.
Carl Nicholson, a CPA from Hattiesburg who serves on the College Board, objected to criticisms of the secrecy of the Fleming proceedings. Nicholson said that, on the advice of their attorney, College Board members are directed not to go into the details of personnel reviews.
Nicholson said, however, that athletics wasn’t mentioned during the proceedings, and expanding USM on the Gulf Coast also wasn’t a factor whatsoever.
“The board voted to give him (Fleming) a one-year extension,” Nicholson said. “I can assure you the Gulf Coast never was mentioned.
“One thing the board always requires out of institutions is that they have a balanced budget. I think what you don’t understand is that the board of trustees is charged with the responsibility of running the institutions of higher learning. We set policy first, then we employ those presidents, then we give them a budget, and then we hold them accountable.
“I think what doesn’t get covered down there is a month ago a budget allocation that is most favorable to USM was approved by the board. It was more favorable to the institutions that were growing than the institutions that were not growing. The problem you have with budgets in Mississippi between institutions is that it winds up the smaller schools get a little bit over funded compared to the hours they produce.”
Those comments seem to allude to differences in opinion regarding budgets as the root issue behind the Fleming controversy. Still, the public is left wondering.
Gene Warr, president of Coast 21, said most members of the business community on the Coast are “mesmerized and confused” by the Fleming controversy.
“He was respected so much in the business community, and had shown his concern and interest in helping us qualify as a pro education community on the Gulf Coast so that we could better keep up with the education needs that economic development is demanding,” Warr said. “There was a lot of disappointment. He was a friend to business.”
Warr said he had heard the reason Fleming came under fire from the College Board was that he was investing too much in technology. Warr said he found that puzzling because it was his understanding that USM was way behind, and that the technology improvements were greatly needed.
Chevis Swetman, president and chairman of the board of People’s Bank, said his son went to USM at the same time Fleming became president. His son’s dorm room had two students, and only one phone line, and there were only 10 Internet access points for students on the entire campus.
At the same time, the University of Mississippi had been hard wired for the Internet for a year with access provided in every dorm room and other facilities around the Oxford campus.
“USM was so far behind it wasn’t even funny,” Swetman. “The university should have been working on this years before Horace got there, but they didn’t have the money. Technology was a deficiency and they corrected it.”
Regarding athletic funding, Swetman said, “Gee, favoring academics over athletics. What a concept!”
But since USM was receiving the maximum amount allowed for athletics, Swetman said Fleming shouldn’t have been criticized for lack of support for athletics.
Swetman was critical of how quickly the campaign against Fleming was mounted, and how little substance there was to it. He said the first report about the problems didn’t surface until July 7 and that the negative comments were vague such as “We don’t like his management style.”
Swetman attended the College Board meeting where Fleming’s contract renewal was discussed, and brought resolutions in support of Fleming from the Mississippi Gulf Coast Chamber of Commerce, the Biloxi Bay Chamber of Commerce, and from the cities of Biloxi and Long Beach.
“We could have had a thousand people at the meeting all saying Horace Fleming has done a great job, and it wouldn’t have mattered,” Swetman said. “They had their minds made up. After seeing what transpired up there, I can truly understand why Mississippi is and always will be 49 or 50th in education compared to the other states. We have two of the toughest years ever coming on for the budget, and USM now is like a ship in the water without a rudder.”
“No question about that,” Swetman said. “The man has done everything possible you would have wanted. He stood up for the university. I just think it is a sad day for Mississippi.”
Hewes didn’t accept that the controversy doesn’t have anything to do with expanding USM on the Coast.
“For members and officials affiliated with the College Board to say it wasn’t about expanding four-year degree offerings at USM Gulf Park is a personal affront,” Hewes said. “It is parochialism at its worst. They have dealt themselves this hand, and it is borne of objections which have no basis, and therefore, do not exist.
“Any way you look at it, this development is a huge setback for the University of Southern Mississippi. And by degrees it undermines the credibility of the College Board.”
Hewes called on the College Board to rescind its position, and offer Fleming a four-year contract.
Contact MBJ staff writer Becky Gillette at firstname.lastname@example.org or (228) 872-345