Sid Salter Column

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Salter: Auditor’s probe will determine fate of Mississippi State University

The fate of the current Mississippi State University presidential search — and with it the sterling professional reputations of two longtime higher education administrators — are riding on the findings of an investigation by State Auditor Stacey Pickering that could be delivered to the state College Board within the next week.

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Ten of the 12 members of the College Board met in Oxford via teleconference on Sept. 27 in closed session to discuss allegations that interim Mississippi State University President Vance Watson used university personnel and equipment for landscaping at the Jackson-area home of state Higher Education Commissioner Tom Meredith.

Who authorized it?

At that Sept. 27 meeting, the board voted that Meredith would step down from the day-to-day supervision of the university system on paid leave while Pickering’s office investigates the landscaping allegations.

The board also left Watson in charge at MSU as interim president. But both the MSU presidential search and any additional action by the College Board regarding the landscaping allegations are on hold pending completion of Pickering’s investigation.

Watson responded by calling the allegations “vicious public attacks being made on my personal credibility” and expressed concern that “the presidential search at MSU is being influenced by those who appear intent on discrediting” him.

“I’m unable to comment on any specific allegations made against me, because they have not been brought to me for an open and honest exchange,” Watson said.

Meredith’s response to the allegations and the board’s actions were more succinct. A statement released by Meredith said: “I look forward to a prompt resolution of this issue and remain committed to moving Mississippi forward through higher education.”

For Watson, the stakes are obvious. His chances to turn his interim presidency of MSU into a permanent post at a school where’s he given a lifetime of service ride on the outcome of the audit investigation.

It would seems Pickering’s investigation has to answer several key questions:

•Did the landscaping transaction actually take place?

•If so, who authorized it? Who initiated it and why?

•Was there an express or implied quid pro quo of any kind?

Meredith’s future?

The answers to those audit investigation questions will likely decide Meredith’s future in Mississippi higher education as well. These allegations are downright bizarre for a man of Meredith’s education and experience.

The always-loquacious state Rep. Steve Holland, D-Plantersville, told the MSU student newspaper The Reflector on Sept. 30 that he was surprised by Watson’s name surfacing in any allegations of wrongdoing.

“(Watson) is nothing but totally honorable,” Holland said. “I’m shocked there would be any hint of his involvement with impropriety.”

Holland went on to tell student reporter Carl Smith that he was incredulous as to why Meredith might accept MSU landscaping services given his status as higher education commissioner.

“This is not murder in the first degree, but it should not have happened if it did,” Holland said. “Quite frankly, Dr. Meredith makes enough money to get his own yard landscaped.” Indeed.

Contact Perspective Editor Sid Salter at (601) 961-7084 or e-mail Visit his blog at