Friday, 12 March 2004

USM Day 5: The conspiracy theory emerges

Scott of I Know What I Know has an email that gives one perspective on the “big picture” of what’s going on at Southern Miss:

Word on the street is that the attempt to decimate liberal arts at USM is very calculated and is indeed one of the reasons Thames was given the job. IHL had a very tangible agenda for putting him in there against protests from the faculty. They were operating under pressure from “the business community,” or a handful of powerful people who have the goal of reducing education spending in the state by cutting duplicate programs from the various universities. They consider strong graduate programs in liberal arts at more than one university in the state to be wasteful duplication.

First, the obligatory disclaimer: I’m strongly in favor of rationalization and consolidation in Mississippi higher education. This state doesn’t need 8½* public universities, especially when you consider that half of them were created as a result of racial and gender segregation in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Nor does it really need half of its universities to be classified as doctoral institutions by the Carnegie Foundation.

That being said, while I favor better allocation of the limited resources the state can bring to bear on postsecondary education, I don’t think an overall cut in the IHL budget would be productive. And, were I to start cutting at individual institutions, it wouldn’t be at USM—rather, I’d focus on the four institutions (ASU, DSU, MUW, and MVSU) with a combined enrollment smaller than the individual enrollments of Mississippi State, USM, and Ole Miss. This state runs two sets of four-year institutions (DSU-MVSU and MUW-MSU) that are geographically closer than the two campuses of USM. While there are sound political reasons for this arrangement, there are no good pedagogical or financial justifications for this duplication of effort.

Turning back to the “conspiracy theory” explanation: in general, I am disinclined to believe grand, overarching explanations for human behavior. The more plausible explanation, from what I can piece together from this account, is that the professors involved engaged in some sort of (potentially illegal) misrepresentation† in their correspondence with the University of Kentucky to further their investigation of Angie Dvorak, and Thames decided—since he didn’t particularly like professors Glasmer and Stringer in the first place—to use evidence of that misrepresentation to force them out. This theory has the benefit of generally fitting the observed facts, although it is undoubtably wrong on some of the particulars, and is generally speculative in nature.

* Most observers consider the creation of the four-year program at USM-Gulf Park in 2001 the precursor to the establishment of a separate, ninth public institution serving the Gulf Coast region.
† For example, they may have represented themselves as acting on behalf of the university administration, rather than on behalf of the AAUP chapter.