During the recent controversy at Southern Miss concerning the ousting of two tenured professors, president Shelby Thames has remained relatively quiet. However, he recently spoke to the Mississippi Business Journal about being perceived as a dictator, conflicts and remedies, and whether or not he would resign over the matter.
Mississippi Business Journal: Professors Frank Glamser and Gary Stringer have lobbied for support from students and faculty. What is your response?
Dr. Shelby Thames: It`s sad that these professors would involve our students in their own personal issues. We don`t have issues with students. I have an issue with Drs. Glamser and Stringer. It`s very bothersome for me to think that students embroiled in this situation would be encouraged to miss class and get extra credit for being involved in a rally. I just don`t like that. I think it`s improper. Our students are our number one priority. I’ve said that ever since I became president of this university. We ask the litmus test question for every decision we make: is this in the best interest of the student? Before they ask the students for something, I would hope that every faculty member on this campus would ask the same litmus test question because our job is to get into the classroom and to teach the subject matter. That`s what the students pay for; that`s what the teachers are paid for.
MBJ: Why do you believe you have come across as having a dictatorial management style?
ST: That`s a question I have asked myself repeatedly because the last thing I have is a dictatorial management style. If you talk to the people that I deal with on a daily basis – staff members, cabinet members, secretaries – the last thing they`ll tell you is that I’m a dictator. I think they`ll tell you that he listens. He presents challenges and asks everybody for their opinion, and then tries to come together for a consensus on how to handle a situation.
Part of the issue here is that, when there is a problem, I will respond to the problem. I won`t sit around and talk about it for six months. If we have a problem and we know we need to improve in areas, let`s map out a plan and let`s go do it. I say there are three kinds of people in this world: those who make things happen, those who watch things happen, and the people who say, ‘What the hell happened?’ We like to make things happen. That`s what I’ve been hired for, and that`s what I’ve done all my life: to make good things happen at the university for our students. I think that`s somewhat intimidating to people.
Now, I will also accept responsibility when I make a mistake. I’m not perfect. When people start questioning whether a mistake was made, I`ll admit when I did. I`ll say my intentions were good to do the right things for these students for this university. But I am befuddled at where it comes from that I’m a dictator because I am not a dictator. That is not my management style. But I will make a decision. And I think that`s where it comes from. I’ve never done anything in a vacuum by myself. I’ve always gotten advice. This last matter is a good example. I didn`t make this decision on my own. I got lots of advice about what to do, how to do it, if it was the right thing to do. But I ultimately had to make the decision and I guess that because I’m the ultimate decision-maker makes me a dictator in some eyes.
MBJ: What can be done at this point to reach across the abyss to help improve the situation?
ST: If you and I have a disagreement, and we both want to resolve that disagreement, and we sit down collectively with the understanding that we’re going to try to resolve the disagreement, we’re going to get it resolved. But if one side wants to get along and the other side doesn`t, it`s impossible. There`s a certain segment of our faculty members who simply don`t want to get along. I’ve tried almost every way possible. To my knowledge, I’m the only president of Southern Miss who`s agreed to have monthly meetings with the executive members of the Faculty Senate so that I could open the doors of communication. I’m going to keep on trying. I’m not going to stop now. The point is, I have tried to communicate with these people and they won`t hear what I’m saying.
MBJ: On March 13, the Accrediting Committee on Journalism Education recommended that the Southern Miss journalism program be placed on provisional status for a year. Are concerns valid about the program?
ST: No. Obviously, if this administration were repeatedly terminating tenured faculty members, sure, there would be reason for concern. If some accreditation agency begins concerning itself with the initiation of termination procedures for two faculty members when there are 670 here, then something`s wrong with the accreditation process. That`s not a matter they need to be dealing with. They need to be dealing with whether or not the kids are getting the kind of education they deserve.
The accreditation is not going to be an issue in this matter. They’re just trying to throw up things to cause people concern that the general public doesn`t understand. This is a planned effort to cause disruption at our school, and I’m sorry about that but we’ve simply got to keep our focus on the students.
MBJ: Do you believe Southern Miss journalism students are being taught balanced reporting?
ST: Last year, the entire year, the Student Printz wrote about me, and only in the last week of the year did a reporter come over here and ask me a few questions. I don`t have a thing against free speech. For God`s sake, I’m all for it. But I think youngsters ought to be taught to look at and present both sides of an issue, and it concerns me when only one side of the story is being told, and that`s a lot of what`s happening in Hattiesburg, I’m afraid. We can`t say a whole lot because the matter is in the hands of the attorney general now, and I just would like people to wait and see the facts.
MBJ: The story has received a lot of attention, even in the national and international press. Has it caused you concern for the image of Southern Miss and have you considered resigning?
ST: Anything that adversely affects Southern Miss concerns me. This is one reason why I’ve stressed that I’d like to have an open hearing because so much has been made of this. People have a responsibility to hear the facts, the charges, everything. When they do, I think they`ll understand why I had to do what I did. And I would hope the public in America would say, well, if those sorts of things happened on the campus where my children go to school, I’d like to know there was a president who thought enough of that institution to do what he felt was right. I hope responsible people will feel better about Southern Miss after this is over than before. And no, ma’am, I will not resign.
MBJ: What is your top priority as Southern Miss president?
ST: The students of this university. I want people to know that I’m looking at the long-term goals of this university and I want the students to understand that, irrespective of any position I have held at this university, they always have been my top priority – and will continue to be.
Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at email@example.com.