President Joe Paul announced at a meeting of select faculty and students on Tuesday that he had picked a new provost at University of Southern Mississippi: Lance Nail, the candidate whose checkered past sparked student protests, more than 1,000 signatures on a change.org petition and letters from faculty opposing his hiring.
The selection is now pending approval from the Institutions of Higher Learning Board of Trustees, which meets later this week, a university spokesperson confirmed to Mississippi Today.
If approved, Nail will have significant power at USM as the provost oversees a large swath of the university from educational programs, admissions and health services. Prior to the announcement, students and faculty questioned Nail’s status as one of four finalists due to media reports of his time as a dean at Texas Tech University.
In one instance, a Title IX investigation found Nail reportedly mishandled a report of sexual misconduct at Texas Tech; he later resigned after a panel determined he had broken its grading policies.
That revelation 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.
“It’s just bad optics,” said Jeremy Scott, a faculty senator and the president of USM’s American Association of University Professors chapter, which wrote Paul a letter urging him not to hire Nail.
But at the 10 a.m. meeting at the Thad Cochran Center, multiple attendees said Paul told the audience of roughly 40 high-level administrators, faculty and students that he spent three weeks checking Nail’s references and learned there was more to the story.
After Nail resigned from Texas Tech, Paul said Nail filed a complaint which led the university to offer him a settlement while he was negotiating for a position as dean at San Diego State University, Denis Wiesenburg, the outgoing president of the faculty senate, told Mississippi Today.
“And so the San Diego State people had full access to all the information surrounding the events at Texas Tech, more than what was reported in the media,” said Wiesenburg, who added he worked with Nail when he was dean of USM’s College of Business. “He was able to secure another position at a great university when all the information was available to those making the decision.”
As for the time that Nail changed students’ grades, Scott said that Paul told attendees Nail did so because “it was gonna have a devastating impact on the future of the students” if they did not pass.
Paul’s “point was that (Nail) was student-centered and that was one of the main things of why they liked the guy,” Scott said.
Wiesenburg said when Paul met with the faculty senate executive committee in early May, they recommended that if Paul wanted to hire Nail, he hold a meeting with the faculty senate.
Scott said it seemed like Paul wanted to get ahead of the news. Many people had already left for vacation as Tuesday is the last work day before summer break, which made Scott feel like “they’re sneaking it in.”
“I asked if he was prepared for the scandal, cause it’s, you know, there’s going to be some,” Scott said. “He said, yeah, that he was following shared governance and that’s what the search committee recommended.”
Paul also said he planned to meet with Emily Goldsmith, a graduate student who helped organize a protest against Nail, last week and plans to speak with them further about this decision.
After Goldsmith was quoted in a student newspaper article about the protest, they received an email from Chuck Scianna, a powerful USM donor and a “lifelong friend” of Paul’s who had collaborated with Nail on the construction of the building for the College of Business, which is called “Scianna Hall.”
“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 to Goldsmith on April 12. “Should we just turn the university over to you and your group to hire the provost and run the university?”
At the time, Scianna’s $6-million donation was the USM Foundation’s largest one-time gift from an alumnus. Nail lists the project as one of his significant professional accomplishments on the first page of his resume.
Molly Minta covers higher education for Mississippi Today, in partnership with Open Campus.