USM President Solidifying Political Power In South Mississippi

Some state legislators say University of Southern Mississippi President Shelby Thames will solidify political power in South Mississippi. A recent local cookout attracted more legislative leaders and power brokers from other areas of the state than any event in recent memory, those in attendance say.

"Those people's presence was directly attributable to their long-standing relationship and respect for Shelby Thames,'' said state Sen. Ron Farris, R-Hattiesburg.

"I absolutely believe that the respect Shelby has brought to the table will benefit the whole area.'' Sen. Jack Gordon, D-Okolona, the Senate appropriations chairman, traveled to Hattiesburg for the party. He said that Thames' reputation will benefit USM.

"I've known Shelby Thames for a long time,'' he said. "Shelby is just an outstanding individual and good leader.''

Thames has been USM's president since May 1. In those months he has:

  • Finalized a tight budget that required 13 layoffs and the cutting of 32 vacant positions.
  • Convinced the state College Board to approve a tuition increase of $184 a year.
  • Enhanced the stature of USM's Gulf Coast campus by creating a provost job.

In addition, he's been part of a number of events where he's attracted supporters from the legislature and USM alumni. All this, Thames said, has made him understand what Robert Khayat, the University of Mississippi's chancellor, meant when he said Thames would enjoy being USM's president but would have no time for anything else.

"Your time is taken, but if you're doing what you like to do, what difference does it make,'' Thames said.

Thames describes his first 90 days on the job as busy but productive.

"We've made a number of appointments which I think are very critical to our success,'' he said. "I'm particularly pleased that we are able to bring the Gulf Coast into the mainstream of Southern Miss with the management structure we've set up.''

The only negative he identifies from his first three months is the need to cut staffing.

"Those are things you'd rather not do,'' he said.

Since becoming president, Thames has frequently said he wants to make USM the best university in the country "at what we do.'' He says he hasn't settled on a way to define "what we do,'' but the issue is one of Thames' top priorities.

"We need to know how good we are, but we don't need to be cocky about it,'' he said. "We need to continue to grow and become better.''