OXFORD, Miss.—Mississippi State Auditor Shad White is suggesting that the University of Mississippi terminate a tenured professor and recoup two days’ worth of pay after seeing that the professor was taking time off work to participate in a strike against social injustice. Strikes are illegal in the state of Mississippi for employees of publicly funded institutions.
The Clarion-Ledger first reported Wednesday that White, a UM alumnus and the university’s 25th Rhodes Scholar, sent a letter to Chancellor Glenn Boyce on Sept. 14 after seeing UM Associate Professor of Sociology James Thomas tweet advising professors with tenure to participate in Scholar Strike, a demonstration intended to “raise awareness of and prompt action against racism, policing, mass incarceration and other symptoms of racism’s toll in America.”
“I have strong feelings about this – if you have tenure, your #ScholarStrike activity needs to be a work stoppage. Tell your students you’re not working,” Thomas tweeted on Sept. 6.
Dr. Anthea Butler, associate professor of religious studies and Africana studies at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, Pa., and Dr. Kevin Gannon, professor of history at Grand View University in Des Moines, Iowa, organized Scholar Strike. The idea was actually pedagogical, with the scholars inviting academics and professors to participate in a “teach-in” instead of normal duties for two days. They could focus instead on teaching activities around racism, policing and mass incarceration. The organizers helped distribute relevant teaching materials to participating professors to share with students.
“Scholar Strike is both an action, and a teach-in,” the Scholar Strike website explains. “Some of us will, for two days, refrain from our many duties and participate in actions designed to raise awareness of and prompt action against racism, policing, mass incarceration and other symptoms of racism’s toll in America.”
The American Sociological Association was one of many organizations that supported its member professors participating in Scholar Strike. “This effort to ‘make a collective stand against police violence (particularly against communities of color) in the United States’ aligns with our organizational values informed by sociological scholarship,” ASA said in a statement on its website, also offering suggested teaching resources. “We encourage sociologists to take a leading role in the teach-ins because such forums explore fundamental issues pertaining to social and racial equality and generate new perspectives through collective discussions and diverse interactions.”
Logan Reeves, a spokesman for the Mississippi State Auditor’s Office, explained to the Mississippi Free Press Wednesday why White chose to focus the attention and resources of his office on a single professor for participating in a creative “teach-in” against racism.
“The law is pretty clear with regard to striking or concerted stoppages of work by public employees, so it’s not necessarily that he chose to do so; it’s that he’s bound by law to do so,” he said Wednesday.
The fact that Thomas was striking due to racial and social injustice occurring across the U.S. did not change his boss’ responsibility, Reeves said. “Frankly, it doesn’t matter. The law is the law in the state of Mississippi. I can’t speak to the intent, of course, but this is a matter that has potential for litigation.”
Thomas declined to comment in the days after armed agents showed up on his doorstep, courtesy of the state auditor.
‘His Last Day at Ole Miss Can’t Come Soon Enough’
James Thomas first rose to notoriety in Mississippi in fall 2018 during the confirmation hearings for now-U.S. Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, who faced accusations of sexual assault. Comments by NBC News talk-show host Joe Scarborough calling for “civility” angered the professor. “Don’t just interrupt a senator’s meal, y’all,” he tweeted in response. “Put your whole damn fingers in their salads. Take their apps and distribute them to the other diners. Bring boxes and take their food home with you on the way out. They don’t deserve your civility.”
UM’s Daily Mississippian reported that Our State Flag Foundation, which has long lobbied to keep the now-furled Mississippi flag and other Confederate iconography and statues in place, posted Thomas’ 2018 tweet on its Facebook page, calling for his firing (as the group is currently doing since his recent “strike” tweet) and even tagging the FBI.
In 2019, Thomas shared furious and sometimes threatening messages he got in response with Nick Judin of the Jackson Free Press, who recounted a sampling of the emails in late 2019: “’Dear fascist twink,’ began one, departing into a bizarre rant that referenced Thomas’ ‘spindly quadroon fingers,’ his ‘gang of black thugs’ and compared him to Trayvon Martin, the boy carrying only Skittles when a neighborhood watchman killed him in Florida in 2012. (Thomas is white.) ‘I hope someone tortures you to death,’ another email spat.”
The FBI treated one of the messages to Thomas as a credible threat: “You better watch your back. I’m coming for you.”
Soon, Thomas found himself fighting for his tenure that many angry and powerful Mississippians wanted denied, especially after a different satirical tweet roiled influential members of the UM community. Still, after an unusual two-hour, closed-door session, the Mississippi Institutions of Higher Learning, a controversial group that governs the state’s public universities and hired a chancellor that caused significant protest last year on the UM campus, granted his tenure.
Thomas did not let up on expressing his opinions once he had more job security. He continued to speak, and tweet, his mind about politics, workers’ rights, criminal-justice reform—and now the endangerment of both faculty and student lives during COVID-19 on a campus seeing high rates of outbreaks opened back up this fall.
“It’s Bond villain-level type shit to ask them to play through/with this pandemic, unpaid,” Thomas tweeted as he shared a Sept. 13 Clarion-Ledger story about UM football players.
‘Cold and Timid Souls Who Have Nothing to Offer But Insults’
As recently as Sept. 8, 2020, Thomas raised the ire of many in Oxford when he criticized the decision to extend bar hours locally during the pandemic in a town known for its raucous parties for people of all ages, especially during football season. “The Oxford Board of Alderman just voted to allow bars to stay open an additional hour for home football games (11pm Friday and Saturday night). This is in the midst of one of the highest per capita rates of COVID in the nation. Fucking idiots,” he tweeted.
The response was fierce against Thomas in social media and beyond including from UM alumni and administration leaders—and much louder and targeted than the paucity of public and university responses to the Mississippi Free Press’ recent investigation of a UM dean’s participation in a chain of racist emails about students and others. That faculty member, Will Norton, stepped down as dean of the journalism school in May.
Perry Sansing, the special assistant to the chancellor for governmental affairs and the university’s chief lobbyist to Mississippi’s elected and appointed officials, wrote a letter (not on UM letterhead) to Oxford Mayor Robyn Tannehill on Sept. 9 that a sports talk-radio personality, Richard Cross, tweeted out. In the letter, the UM lobbyist called Thomas, whose book “Diversity Regimes” explains the pitfalls of fighting racial inequality on college campuses, an “embarrassment to the University.”
“Professor Thomas does not speak for the University and his inability and unwillingness to elevate the discourse on matters of public concern is disappointing but regrettably not surprising,” Sansing wrote, adding that local leaders were making decisions “in the best interests of Oxford and its residents.” At the end of his letter, Sansing added, “Try and ignore the cold and timid souls who have nothing to offer but insults.”
UM Special Assistant to the Chancellor William Kneip then retweeted Cross’ tweet with Sansing’s letter in solidarity with Mayor Tannehill. The anonymous OM Rebel, whose profile includes “Triggering Liberals Daily,” replied to Kneip: “There are many OM alumni and fans that support the termination of Mr. Thomas; he has on several occasions violated the OM Creed which is supposed to mean something. If the Creed has no value then Students cannot be expected to be held to it either. #FireThomas.”
The UM Creed pledges range from “respect for the dignity of each person” to believing in “academic honesty” and “academic freedom.”
Another state official weighed in publicly under Cross’ tweet as well. Mississippi Secretary of State Michael Watson, also a UM graduate, praised Sansing’s letter in his Sept. 10 tweet: “Appreciate (Sansing) going out of his way to speak for so many of us. The so called ‘professor’ is embarrassing & a great example of the misguided people who caused our current state of affairs in America. His last day at Ole Miss can’t come soon enough.”
‘Will the Free Speech Defenders Talk About This?
In his Sept. 14, 2020, letter, the state auditor made it clear that Thomas could be terminated for his participation in the academic strike for racial justice. “The penalties for striking … are clear,” White wrote. “If an employee has engaged in a strike, a court ‘shall order the termination of his or her employment.’” He also called for two days’ payment to be withheld.
His letter ended with the auditor praising the public university, also his alma mater, for working with him in the investigation. “The University of Mississippi has been very cooperative in this matter, so thank you for your assistance,” White wrote.
White, who soon after taking office busted a multi-million dollar embezzlement scheme, sent investigators to speak to Thomas at his home. This is not the first time the government has pressured Thomas for his beliefs and actions. The 2018 tweets that threatened his tenure also had drawn a response from the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Three months after Thomas tweeted out his response to Joe Scarborough’s call for civility, agents with the FBI paid Thomas a visit but did nothing. The professor wondered at the time who might have pressured the federal agency into approaching him.
Several colleagues, scholars and citizens have voiced their support for Thomas. Attorney Morgan L. Stringer did not mince her words when she tweeted that the actions of the state auditor are reminiscent of the conduct of late U.S. Sen. Joseph McCarthy, whose surname has become synonymous with demagoguery, reckless abuse of power, red-baiting communist fears, blacklisting academics and entertainers, and public attacks on political opponents.
“Shad White is using his political position to ‘investigate’ a professor that he and his ilk don’t like, Stringer tweeted. “Will the free speech defenders talk about this? This is recycled McCarthyism.”
Other Thomas defenders questioned the priorities of the young auditor, who works for citizens living in a state racked with myriad financial issues. Mississippi is one of the poorest states in the U.S. and has been plagued by financial scandals this year, with wealthy people accused of absconding with tax money meant to help the poor, including a situation where former NFL quarterback Brett Favre received $1.1 million in TANF money for events that he did not attend.
Brett Favre Paid Back Part of Missing DHS Funds
As of May, Spokesman Logan Reeves said, Favre had paid back $500,000—not quite half of what he owes the State of Mississippi—and made a verbal commitment to pay the rest. However, The Clarion-Ledger reported earlier this week that no formal agreement exists between Favre, the organizations he is affiliated with or the State of Mississippi for that repayment. The revelations concerning Favre were part of a larger audit White conducted, along with Hinds County District Attorney Jody Owens, which identified $94 million in fraudulent spending by the Mississippi Department of Human Services.
The Mississippi Free Press asked Reeves what he would say to the citizens of Mississippi who are concerned that White’s actions are a form of government overreach and a waste of state resources. “I would say to any public citizen that they could talk to a legislator and get the law changed, but as it stands right now it’s pretty clear that these acts violate state law and that there’s a clear course of action that must be taken,” he answered.
Reeves noted that state statutes determine that state law requires action. “You can’t go 100 miles per hour down the interstate and not expect to get a ticket,” he said.
But UM political-science professor Conor Dowling shared a completely different take in a two-page Sept. 16, 2020, letter that starts, “At the University of Mississippi our racist past continues to haunt us,” then later adding that Thomas, the sociology of racism specialist, has “a target” on his back.
Dowling writes that he regrets that he did not participate in the teach-in. “#ScholarStrike was one small action many of us could have taken to help transform lives and communities.” He added that the auditor’s attempt to now get Thomas fired is “an attempt to score some cheap political points in the name of the law … and to use intimidation tactics in an attempt to silence faculty.”
“In a show of solidarity,” Dowling added, he is donating two days of pay to eight Black student organizations on the UM campus. “[T]he State Auditor cannot take away what my students learn as we strive to make the world—and especially this campus—a more inclusive and welcoming place.”
Donna Ladd contributed to this story.