The unsolicited email arrived in Emily Goldsmith’s inbox shortly before 6 p.m. on April 12 with a subject line that was short and to-the-point: “provost protest.” 

Goldsmith, a graduate student at the University of Southern Mississippi, had recently been critical in the student newspaper about a growing controversy on campus: One of the finalists for provost — an administrator and finance professor named Lance Nail — had a checkered past at a former employer, Texas Tech University. A Title IX investigation found Nail reportedly mishandled a report of sexual misconduct and “failed in his responsibility as the Dean of the College.” 

The news touched a nerve on campus where students had called on the university to adopt a zero-tolerance policy toward sexual assault a year and a half ago. More than 750 students, faculty and alumni signed a petition protesting Nail’s possible hiring. Goldsmith, whose pronouns are they/them, just so happened to be the only student quoted in the student newspaper. Still, they knew they were speaking for many when they said that hiring Nail “would communicate that all the university’s claims about diversity, inclusion, and equity were meaningless platitudes.” And, they began helping to plan a protest. 

Days later, the email came through. 

“You do not know me but my name is Chuck Scianna and I am the guy that Scianna Hall is named after,” it began. 

Goldsmith knew of Scianna. The 93,000-foot building that bears his name in gleaming gold font faces U.S. Highway 49, a major thoroughfare in Hattiesburg. Scianna, an alumnus and co-founder of a major distributor of oil pipeline products, also happens to be one of USM’s largest individual donors along with his wife, Rita, having given more than $10 million. He is also “lifelong friends” with USM’s new president, Joe Paul. 

But Goldsmith didn’t know why Scianna cared about their protest. 

In the email obtained by Mississippi Today, Scianna wrote that he knew Goldsmith was planning to protest but asked them to consider that USM had hired a search firm, created a search committee and instituted a “process” to vet the candidates for provost and still, Nail had become a finalist. 

“If you are going to protest the interviewing of Dr. Nail, should you not protest Dr. Paul and the search committee, the search firm and everyone else involved in the selection process,” Scianna wrote. “Should we just turn the university over to you and your group to hire the provost and run the university?” 

In his 48 years of business, Scianna wrote, he had been accused of “many things that were not even close to the truth.” He suggested there was more behind the news articles about Nail, who he noted he had worked with “in the past.” 

“I am not advocating that you should not have a voice, but it should be peaceful and armed with the facts, not just a google search,” he wrote, adding “I believe that if you have a conversation with him before you rely only on a google search you might have a different opinion.” 

“You are completing a PhD,” he concluded. “Don’t you have to have an open mind to get the best out of an education? Does your program allow you to get all of your research facts from one source? I am only asking that you go into this with an unbiased opinion of Dr. Nail and let the process pick the best candidate.” 

USM did not return a comment by press time, but Scianna’s email offers a look at how university donors in Mississippi, who have extraordinary access to powerful administrators, view the role of community feedback in the largely confidential search-and-selection process of key university hires. It also speaks to whose voices get results from university administration.

Goldsmith felt shaken and intimidated by Scianna’s email. 

“I do think it’s troublesome to discount the students who are saying they have feelings about this,” Goldsmith said. “This is their campus. Even if we’re going to say ‘majority rules,’ nobody has made a petition to say that we should hire Lance Nail, so it’s not like there’s this loud opposite voice.” 

Goldsmith didn’t reply to Scianna and forwarded the email to their dissertation advisor — their immediate superior — who then sent it up the chain. Scianna’s email soon started circulating among faculty before it ultimately made its way to Chris Winstead, the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. 

Troubled by the message, Winstead texted and called Paul about it, according to another email shared with Mississippi Today. 

“I do think that there is a power dynamic at play,” Goldsmith said. “Perhaps it would not have been unusual if I had had prior overlap (with Scianna) or conversations or a personal connection or even perhaps if I was in the College of Business.” 

Scianna told Mississippi Today that he was just trying to offer Goldsmith some advice — not telling them not to protest. “Read the email. It’s very clear. There’s no threat,” he said.

“The higher up you get in any organization, you’re more susceptible to people finding fault with what you do, finding fault with your decisions and then the narrative gets misconstrued — a lot of times by the media, to be honest, because they don’t go out and get all the facts or look at both sides,” he said.

The controversy started earlier this month after USM announced that Nail was one of four finalists for provost, the university’s chief academic officer. Students at USM promptly dug into his history — and had concerns about what they found. 

Nail became dean of Texas Tech’s business college in 2012, after spending four years at USM’s College of Business. In 2015, Nail let go of a business school professor, reportedly a friend of his, who had been accused of sexual misconduct, according to KCBD. But the Title IX investigation, which Nail said had “inaccuracies,” found that he still invited the former business professor to a university trip to Chile, where the professor harassed a female student. 

Later that year, Nail resigned from Texas Tech after the university determined he had broken its grading policies. 

Nail, who was visiting the USM Gulf Park campus on Monday, didn’t return an inquiry from Mississippi Today before press time. In a comment to SM2, the student newspaper, Nail wrote that “the many Southern Miss colleagues I worked with” could attest to his character, particularly his former students and “those who served on the Business Advisory Council who supported my mission to graduate ethical business leaders from Southern Miss.” 

Scianna told Mississippi Today that he is one of those colleagues who served on USM’s Business Advisory Council, which advises the dean of the business college. He said he worked closely with Nail, reviewing the college’s curriculum to see how it “would be beneficial to my company” and recruiting students for internships or non-profit projects that he declined to share more details about. 

But perhaps the biggest project Scianna and Nail collaborated on was the construction of Scianna Hall, a more than $30-million project. At the time, Scianna’s $6-million donation was the USM Foundation’s largest one-time gift from an alumnus. 

As dean, Nail had a key hand in stewarding the campaign to build the business school. He lists the project as one of his significant professional accomplishments on the first page of his resume

“He didn’t just walk in one day and say ‘Will you write a check?’” Scianna said. 

After Nail left USM, Scianna said the two stayed “acquaintances.” He said he didn’t recommend Nail for the position or express a preference for Nail to anyone on the search committee. 

“I’m not impartial,” he said. “I want the very best candidate, but I want the process to work out. My email to Emily has nothing to do with Lance Nail. It’s with the way that it’s being approached. … Don’t make your decision based on Google searches.” 

Scianna has served on search committees for key hirings at USM before, most recently last year when he was on the committee convened by the Institutions of Higher Learning Board of Trustees to select the university’s next president. When it comes to the hiring process, he said that unlike the majority of students, faculty and alumni, the search committee has access “to all the facts.” 

“Shouldn’t their decision weigh more?” he said. “I mean, we don’t like chocolate ice cream. Let’s have a protest. Should we ban chocolate ice cream? Should we have the facts? And that’s all I’m saying.” 

He said he wasn’t sure what a protest — no matter how large — could accomplish when the university ultimately makes a hiring decision based on the help of the search committee and the headhunting firm. 

“What if a thousand people got together and said your newspaper was dishonest, didn’t report the truth?” he said. “Should there be an investigation? You know, I don’t know. That’s, that’s, I’m just not smart enough, I guess, to figure that out.”

USM’s provost 13-person search committee does include two student voices — the SGA presidents of the Hattiesburg and Gulf Park campuses — but Goldsmith said the process should be more transparent so that all students can be heard. They suggested the university share the steps that were taken to vet Nail before he became a finalist. 

And while they don’t plan to ask Nail any questions when he visits campus Tuesday, they will attend the protest they helped organize in USM’s designated free speech zone in the middle of campus.

“I do think generally that undergrad and graduate students should be made more aware of administrative hiring,” they said. “There isn’t always a ton of transparency in higher education. Sometimes students don’t even know to look at this stuff … but I have learned through this process that many undergrad students do care. They’re not thoughtless, they’re not uninvolved. They are thinking, they are thoughtful, they are involved.” 

Scianna, who is back in his office in Waller, Texas, after visiting Hattiesburg this weekend, doesn’t plan to see the protest for himself because his philanthropy shows his dedication to USM.

“I don’t have to be part of this,” he said. “They can do what they want to do. I mean, talk, beat your drum, do whatever. But let your actions speak for yourself.” 

Molly Minta covers higher education for Mississippi Today, in partnership with Open Campus.

Higher education reporter at Mississippi Today in partnership with Open Campus.