Miss. college chief resigns over landscaping flap

Published 1:35 pm Friday, October 24, 2008

Landscaping worth just over $6,000 has led Mississippi’s colleges chief to retire early and the interim president of the state’s largest university to resign.

An audit showed the work was done at taxpayer expense at the home of Mississippi Higher Education Commissioner Tom Meredith. He announced his retirement Wednesday, two days after Vance Watson resigned as Mississippi State University’s interim president amid the flap over the funding.

“I have worked diligently over these 45 years to build a reputation of honesty and integrity. There is no way I would have taken a chance at this stage of my life to damage that reputation over anything,” Meredith said in a statement.

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Last week, Watson repaid the state more than $12,000 for the work done in 2007. That amount also included how much it cost to investigate the discrepancy.

Calls for both men to step down began last week after State Auditor Stacey Pickering said the work was performed using university personnel, equipment and material.

Pickering’s report said Meredith had asked Watson for a recommendation about landscaping and soil testing at his Flowood home. At the time, Watson was vice president and director of the Mississippi Agriculture and Forestry Experiment Station at MSU. Pickering said Watson sent the students and equipment to Meredith’s home.

Pickering has given his report to Oktibbeha County District Attorney Forrest Allgood, who said a grand jury will decide whether to pursue criminal charges.

Meredith, 64, has been chief of the state’s public university system since 2005 and earns $366,350. He’s held similar jobs in Georgia and Alabama. He said his last day will be Nov. 15.

He said Wednesday that he agreed to the work on the condition he would pay for it.

“Our efforts to receive a bill are documented. With the auditor’s report, we discovered for the first time the cost of the trees and how they were provided,” Meredith said in his statement.

Meredith said he issued a check for $6,347.53, the full amount.

Meredith has been on voluntary, paid administrative leave since the auditor’s investigation began last month.

A release from the state College Board said Meredith will be available to the board on an “as-needed basis.” The release said the board is expected to accept his retirement request at Friday’s meeting, where members also will discuss MSU’s presidential search.

Watson, 66, had wanted to become the new president of MSU, with an enrollment of 18,000 students located on a sprawling campus in Starkville. He resigned as interim president on Monday and will retire Oct. 31 after 42 years at the school.

The College Board, which oversees Mississippi’s eight public universities, named Roy Ruby, former MSU vice president for student affairs, as acting president.

Senate Universities Committee Chairman Doug Davis, R-Hernando, said he “appreciated” Meredith’s decision.

“Hopefully, the College Board can move forward in putting someone at MSU quickly and they can begin their new search for a new commissioner,” Davis said. “As far as I’m concerned, it’s an isolated incident with two individuals who had a lapse of judgment.”

During his tenure, Meredith pushed for increased state funding for Mississippi’s universities. When the system didn’t receive all of the money, tuition was increased. He has been criticized in the past because university president searches have been shrouded in secrecy.

College Board President Amy Whitten said “Meredith made a positive difference” for the university system.

Next month, Meredith will come under more scrutiny.

The Senate Ethics Committee will hold hearings beginning Nov. 19 to examine the use of taxpayers’ dollars for lobbying activities, said Chairman Merle Flowers, R-Southaven.

A report released by a legislative watchdog committee in August said public universities, community colleges and state agencies should be banned from the practice.