Coast business leaders are happy to see the issue of the expansion of the University of Southern Mississippi on the Coast is having its day in court. The case that pits the Institutions of Higher Learning (IHL) against the State Board for Community and Junior Colleges comes before the Mississippi Supreme Court Oct. 8.
“One of the things we are looking forward to with a lot of positive anticipation now is the state Supreme Court’s hearing on Oct. 8 on having the lower division courses at our dual campus for USM,” said Gene Coan, president of Coast 21. “We are very hopeful and have a real positive feeling toward that. That will be a big day for us.”
At the same time, there has been concern in the Coast business community that the search for a new president of USM could be affected by the controversy over expanding freshman and sophomore offerings on the Coast. Some felt that Dr. Horace Fleming’s ouster as president came in part because of his staunch support for expanding course offerings on the Coast. Fleming also apparently fell into disfavor with some influential athletic supporters at USM.
Until recently the current president of the IHL, William Sterling Crawford, was employed by the State Board for Community and Junior Colleges. He was employed in workforce development at Meridian Community College prior to taking a job July 1 as president of The Montgomery Institute, a regional leadership foundation named in honor of former Congressman G. V. “Sonny” Montgomery that serves portions of East Mississippi and West Alabama.
Following the failure of the IHL board to give Fleming a four-year contract renewal, business leaders on the Coast were vocal about concerns that the 15-member IHL board was punishing Fleming for strongly supporting USM’s expansion on the Coast, which could be seen as a threat to other major universities in the state and which has been opposed by the community colleges who said it would be an unnecessarily duplication of programs. The IHL board has only one graduate from the University of Southern Mississippi.
For example, Sen. Billy Hewes III of Gulfport, speaking at a special session of the legislation, said Fleming’s support for a stronger university presence on the Gulf Coast was his downfall, and what happened was one more example of the institutional bias against South Mississippi that exists at all levels of the government.
Chevis Swetman of People’s Bank, who is president of the Gulf Coast Chamber of Commerce, has also protested the IHL’s treatment of Fleming.
“Hopefully the process will go smoothly, but I’m concerned about the makeup of the selection committee,” Swetman said of the process to select Fleming’s successor.
Crawford is an ex officio member of the search committee for the new president of USM. Dr. Pamela Smith, spokeswoman for IHL, denied any conflict of interest.
“Mr. Crawford’s new position is not affiliated with the community college system,” Smith said. “There is absolutely no conflict with Mr. Crawford’s professional position and his office as president.”
Crawford said the issue of his previous employment with the community college is a “paper tiger” that is not significant to the issue of the search for a new president of USM. He said the issue of USM’s expansion will be resolved in the Supreme Court regardless of how he feels about it.
The decision to offer Fleming only a one-year contract, which Fleming declined, was decided on a vote of 11-1. Citing the need to keep personnel matters confidential, members of IHL have declined to discuss the Fleming controversy.
“We have to bear lots of arrow and lots of speculation,” Crawford said. “But the idea that the Fleming problem had anything to do with athletics or the Coast expansion is absolutely not true.”
Crawford said the board agreed with Fleming’s characterization of the issue, which was that the board and Fleming disagreed on his leadership of the university.
Coan said business leaders are hopeful the IHL will move as quickly as possible to name a new president. “We feel very fortunate we have Dr. Aubrey Lucas in place now running the university because he is committed to the same goals that we are committed to, that is providing greater educational opportunity at all of their facilities and expanding to freshmensophomore classes at USM Gulf Coast. Dr. Lucas is a good man, and we’re certainly comfortable with him in the position he is in. But we are naturally looking forward to them coming up with a permanent president for the university.”
Mary Butler Sumrall of Hattiesburg, who heads a staff council at USM that represents non-teaching employees, said the staff is concerned about being represented on the campus advisory committee on selecting a new USM president.
“We certainly want staff to be a part of the search,” Sumrall said. “The staff just wants to know they will have input into the selection process. We need to not rush through this process. In the meantime, the campus will start settling down and work together again.”
Sumrall said there are efforts to bring together supporters of academics and athletics.
Privately some have been questioning if attending all campus athletic events might be on the list of requirements — written or not — for the new president. Fleming was criticized for not attending enough games, and for athletic budget cuts.
With all of the controversy over Fleming leaving USM, some might think that would make it difficult to find well-qualified applicants for the position. That’s not so, says Dr. Don Cabana, a professor of criminal justice and chair-elect of the Faculty Senate.
“There’s a lot to recommend this university and the president’s job here,” Cabana said. “I’m very hopeful about the possibilities of attracting a strong candidate. That doesn’t have to mean someone coming from outside of the state or even outside of the university. There are some strong candidates within the university. There are people here who could do an excellent job.”
Recently IHL hired Korn/Ferry of Dallas as the consultant for the USM presidential search committee. William “Bill” Funk is the principal consultant for the USM search.
Contact MBJ staff writer Becky Gillette at email@example.com or (228) 872-3457.