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Ousted Southern Miss professors rally support, but at what cost?

Camps divided on campus lead to many questions

HATTIESBURG – CPA Susan Riley was at her Sumrall home March 5, taking a rare sick day during tax season when a local television station aired a teaser about the “massacre at Southern Miss” as the lead story on the five o’clock news.

Riley, a Southern Miss alum whose son, Zach, is a sophomore on campus and works part-time for Riley`s accounting firm, Nicholson & Company, P.A., frantically dialed her office and asked if he was there. When she was told no, Riley`s heart raced until she learned that two professors had been fired.

“How misleading!” said Riley. “As a mother, when I heard ‘massacre,’ I panicked.”

The discord at the 15,000-student University of Southern Mississippi between president Shelby Thames and ousted tenured professors Frank Glamser and Gary Stringer has dominated front-page coverage for weeks, attracting national and international attention. It has further divided two camps: Thames’ supporters and the Southern Miss faculty.

“We are all very tired from the battle and growing weary of even reading about all of this, much less trying to fight for what we believe in and swimming upstream all the way,” said Southern Miss nursing professor Kay Lundy.

Even though the case has been turned over to the state attorney general, and Thames has declined to comment directly on the case, Glamser and Stringer have been very vocal about the matter, lobbying for support from faculty and students.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Mississippi, which pledged to support the ousted professors, has reportedly scheduled a protest on the campus April 6, but state representative Nsombi Lambright did not return phone calls by press time for this article and the office staff would not verify the meeting.

“I don`t think this situation has been presented well by the press, and I have explained to my children that we have not heard the full story,” said Riley, whose younger son, Blake, 16, plans to attend Southern Miss. “I respect Dr. Thames enough to know he would not have done what he did without the facts and support.”

The issue brought to a boiling point conflicts that have simmered since Thames took over as head of the university in 2002. The faculty did not endorse him before he was named president, and has attempted to stymie his leadership ability, especially after Thames consolidated nine colleges into five to streamline expenses to accommodate budget cuts. (The “Efficiency, Effectiveness and Innovation Plan” allowed Southern Miss to reallocate more than $1.8 million from administrative costs into the classroom and was presented at the National Governor`s Association Center for Best Practices conference last September.)

Two days after the firings, 470 of 670 faculty members expressed no confidence in Thames’ presidency, a vote that means little more than expressing displeasure. Faculty members have described Thames as being a dictator, a claim that he denies.

“Unfortunately, it`s pretty hard to change perceptions that have high emotional content,” said Hattiesburg psychologist and leadership specialist Beverly Smallwood. “If there is a chance that this situation can be healed, it will take some genuine soul-searching, positive initiative and honest, respectful communication by all parties.”

About two-thirds of the faculty at the Mississippi University for Women voted no confidence by secret ballot in August 1999 in the leadership of its president, Clyda Rent. Even though her contract was renewed in February 2000, she resigned the following June. However, in 1976, Boston University faculty members expressed no confidence in its president, John R. Silber, and voted to oust him in 1979, but he prevailed until retiring late last year.

Thames, 67, a world-renowned scientist, joined Southern Miss as a professor in 1964 and established the school`s acclaimed polymer science program in 1970. His research and generosity has netted the university millions in grants and worldwide recognition in research circles. It is not known how much money Glamser, 61, a sociology professor and president of the local chapter of the American Association of University Professors, and Stringer, an English professor at Southern Miss since 1972, have raised.

Thames replaced Horace Fleming, who garnered the support of Southern Miss faculty but not the powerful alumni association. On March 10, Eugene D. Owens, president of the alumni association`s executive committee, released a neutral statement calling for “both sides to get beyond their emotional energies and to expend those energies on resolving the disagreements by communicating issues and opinions to the IHL Board.”

“The mission of any institution should never be displaced by unfruitful diversions,” said Owens. “The job of teaching and training others for significant roles in society is too important. The current disruption at Southern Miss is getting in the way of these significant roles. It is obvious that all who are involved in the controversy at Southern Miss have caused some detriment to the university. This controversy certainly has affected all who are affiliated and associated with the university. The longer this controversy festers and lingers, the greater the negative impact for all concerned.”

Having all the facts and using a civil and deliberate decision-making process exemplifies “that for which our great nation stands,” said Owens.

“To do less leads to anarchy and poorly made decisions based on emotions only,” he said.

The prologue

Earlier this year, Glamser and Stringer publicly questioned the credentials of Dr. Angeline “Angie” Dvorak, 44, former CEO of the Mississippi Tech-nology Alliance whom Thames handpicked as vice president for research and economic development at Southern Miss in 2002.

Glamser has said that the investigation into Dvorak`s background was the result of an anonymous tip he received last December. Glamser said an envelope had been slipped under his door, but the letter inside did not name Dvorak. After forwarding the tip to Thames Dec. 12, Glamser asked Stringer to lead the charge to formally investigate the matter.

In mid-January, only a few days after the spring semester began, Stringer released a report concluding that Dvorak`s credentials were “misleading.”

At question was whether or not Dvorak, an attorney with master`s degrees in English and English education and a doctorate in English, was a tenured associate professor at the University of Kentucky (UK), even though her role at Southern Miss does not require tenure. Between the time she presided over Ashland Community College (now Ashland Community & Technical College), which is part of the UK system, and joined Southern Miss, changes were made in the way professors are tenured in the UK system. The bottom line: Dvorak represented herself correctly, but those findings were not as widely publicized.

According to sources close to the situation, after a six-week investigation, Thames charged Glamser and Stringer with dishonesty, insubordination, and misusing university-owned computer equipment and telephones for the unauthorized investigation. They were suspended with pay.

The IHL Board, which supports Thames, discussed the matter behind closed doors last month. Thames wants the hearing open to the news media, videotaped and transcribed by a certified court reporter, with a real-time transcript feed to a designed Web page.

Legal wrangling is taking place over confidentiality issues governing termination proceedings initiated by a state university president. Thames has asked for the hearing to begin no later than April 5 and end by April 9. The professors’ attorney, Michael Adelman of Hattiesburg, has requested a closed-door hearing at a later date.

“The policies and procedures are in place and lie in the hands of the IHL Board members for resolving the issues at hand,” said Owens. “We implore the IHL Board to thoroughly investigate the facts and to resolve this matter in a most expedient manner, and to make the facts available to the public. Delay and a lack of public advisement will only exacerbate the situat
ion.”

Co
mmunity concerns

Concerns have been expressed about the impact the situation might have on fundraising and student enrollment at Southern Miss, but the university is on track for another record year of research funding and increased enrollment. Since April 1, 2002, student enrollment has increased every semester, and freshmen acceptances for fall 2004 are at a record high.

“My younger son won`t change his mind about enrolling at Southern Miss,” said Riley. “He`s definitely going.”

Thames has taken several steps to boost enrollment and academic achievement. In November 2002, he and Mississippi Choctaw Chief Phillip Martin signed an agreement encouraging Choctaw enrollment at Southern Miss. This fall, the university is expected to have a record number of Honors College Presidential Scholars and National Merit Finalists.

Last March, the Center for Tourism and Economic Development Research at Southern Miss was established on the Gulf Coast. In February, Southern Miss established the School of Ocean and Earth Sciences. This fall, after a lengthy court battle, undergraduate classes will begin for the first time at the university`s Gulf Park campus.

In October 2002, the university expanded its nursing program when it acquired a former retail center at Cloverleaf Mall. Two months later, Southern Miss broke ground on a new five-story Center for International and Continuing Education. A $6-million Gulf Coast Geospatial Center opened that December, and the Visualization Center at Stennis Space Center and the George Knauer Marine Science Building opened last fall. In addition to planned renovations, upgrades and improvements to the school`s athletic facilities, a $47 million student life center is under construction.

Among the faculty and staff incentives, Thames implemented the Model for Incentive Dollars for Augmenting Salaries (MIDAS), an incentive pay program to reward faculty and staff for securing and managing contract and grant support, last April. Last year, Southern Miss reported a record $81 million in research funding. As of February 29, the university reported a 20% increase in faculty with funded research.

Last April, the first excellence in teaching and research awards totaling $55,000 were announced. Eight months later, Thames announced a 100% tuition waiver for students when both parents are employed at Southern Miss.

Economic activity has been consistent, said Becky Thompson, interim director for the Area Development Partnership (ADP) in Hattiesburg.

“We have been very busy in recent weeks,” she said.

In addition to numerous collaborations between the ADP and Southern Miss, the proposed Innovation and Commercialization Park was launched and partially funded by a $2 million grant recently secured by Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.). It will be built on part of the 500 acres owned by Southern Miss near Classic Drive and will house a variety of research-intensive projects with commercial viability.

Fountain View, Calif.-based Hybrid Plastics Inc., a pioneer in nanotechnology materials used for products from space-vehicle coatings to earthly packaging, has already agreed to move to Hattiesburg with a half-dozen Ph.D. scientists, where it will have free use of laboratories and money for building new facilities.

Hybrid COO Carl Hagstrom, who said another California firm, Maxdem Inc., of San Dimas, persuaded the company to move to Mississippi, told The Los Angeles Times in a January 25th article that “the University of Southern Mississippi at Hattiesburg has one of the best polymer chemistry departments in the country.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at mbj@thewritingdesk.com.

About Lynne W. Jeter

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