Watson resigns as interim president of Miss. State

Published 2:15 pm Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Vance Watson worked for four decades at Mississippi State University before a flap over improperly funded landscaping work led him to resign Monday as interim president of the school.

“I would never intentionally do anything that would be disrespectful nor bring dishonor to this great institution,” Watson said in a statement released by the College Board. “It is my hope and prayer that Mississippi State will continue to be one of the leaders in education, not only in the South, but also in the nation.”

Watson, 66, had applied to become the new president of the nearly 18,000-student school, but now will retire on Oct. 31.

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The College Board, which oversees Mississippi’s eight public universities, named Roy Ruby, former MSU vice president for student affairs, as acting president. The board will meet Friday to discuss the search for a permanent president.

Last week, Watson repaid the state more than $12,000 for landscaping work performed at taxpayer expense in 2007 at the home of Higher Education Commissioner Thomas Meredith, chief of the College Board. State Auditor Stacey Pickering said the work was done using MSU 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 gave his report to Oktibbeha County District Attorney Forrest Allgood, who said a grand jury will decide whether to pursue criminal charges.

“It is important that you realize that this was a civil claim by the state auditor’s office and not a criminal one. I never derived any personal gain out of this matter,” Watson said in Monday’s statement.

Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Alan Nunnelee, R-Tupelo, who was among those calling for both men’s resignation, said Watson’s 42 years of service at MSU shouldn’t go unnoticed.

“I appreciate him taking the honorable route and saving the Mississippi State community a lot of anguish,” said Nunnelee, an MSU graduate. “I think Dr. Meredith ought to follow the honor set by Dr. Watson and he ought to resign as well.”

Meredith is on paid administrative leave from the College Board, but still has the support of some Mississippi lawmakers.

“Tom Meredith, as far as I’m concerned, is a man of honor. I can’t imagine that he knowingly did anything wrong,” House Education Committee Chairman Cecil Brown, D-Jackson, said last week.

Vance was named interim president after Robert “Doc” Foglesong, a retired U.S. Air Force general, resigned in March after two years on the job.

College Board president Amy Whitten said the board plans to select a new MSU chief by Nov. 1.

Nunnelee said he’s holding the board to that date.

“If there’s any delay beyond that it would be devastation. Right now, the MSU community is hurting and we need healing to begin quickly,” Nunnelee said.