Mississippi Auditor Seeks Restitution from Professor J.T. Thomas, But Attorney McDuff Unmoved

State Auditor Shad White maintains that he has no choice under state law—James Thomas (pictured) violated state law against strikes and faces termination. But other professors say the government and a public university are targeting a tenured professor's academic freedom and freedom of speech for participating in a teach-in about racism and injustice at a university still struggling with a racist past. Photo courtesy James Thomas

Professor Thomas’s actions did not violate any law, and he does not owe the State any money.

Jackson attorney Rob McDuff thus responded to Mississippi State Auditor Shad White’s announcement that he had issued a demand for $1912.42 to University of Mississippi sociology professor James Thomas.

The attempt to collect money from Thomas is the latest development in White’s pursuit of restitution against the academic for his participation in Scholar Strike over the course of two days in September. The “strike,” accompanied by teaching materials and discussion, was a way for academics to teach students about issues around racial injustice and violent policing.

Interest and the auditor’s investigative costs account for more than half of White’s monetary demand. Logan Reeves, a representative for the state auditor’s office, told the Mississippi Free Press today that the principal amount of $946.74 had accrued 2% interest at $9.47 per month for two months. The total interest in Thomas’ case was $18.94, according to Reeves, meaning that the cost of White’s investigation is equal to the principal White listed. 

Famed Jackson Attorney Rob McDuff (right), pictured with former client Curtis Flowers, says James Thomas does not owe the State of Mississippi any money. Courtesy Mississippi Center for Justice

McDuff provided a full statement to the Mississippi Free Press earlier today in which he rejects the notion that Thomas has to now pay money to the auditor’s office. “Professor Thomas’s actions did not violate any law, and he does not owe the State any money,” the attorney said.

“If the Auditor wants to pay him extra for the personal days he has not used, the weekends and holidays he has worked over the years, including those he worked preparing the lesson plan that week, then maybe we can talk about whether he should pay any money because of his participation in the #ScholarStrike. Professor Thomas is a good teacher who works hard for his students and who earns his salary.”

State Auditor: ‘Thinking Isn’t Going To Cut It With Me’

The auditor is standing by his original contention that the professor went on an illegal strike for two days. It’s simple,” White said earlier today on the state auditor’s website. “The taxpayers of Mississippi cannot pay someone when they did not provide the good or service they were hired to provide.”

Thomas, a tenured professor and published author, insists that he did work during this time and that the “strike” was an academic exercise. White challenges that definition of his work and previously sought Thomas’ termination. The Mississippi Free Press reported in an earlier story that during the same period that Thomas was participating in the Scholar Strike, he had angered state officials and members of the UM administration with criticism of the City of Oxford’s relaxed COVID-19 safety standards.

Shad White
Mississippi State Auditor Shad White (pictured) issued a demand for nearly $2,000 to University of Mississippi sociology professor James Thomas. Courtesy State Auditor Shad White

White also revealed in his press release today that he had sought information on the professor’s job contract.

“As for Prof. Thomas’s termination, our investigation revealed that Prof. Thomas’s contract is with the Institutions of Higher Learning (IHL),” White wrote. “IHL will ultimately have to decide if they will take Prof. Thomas to court to hear the matter of his termination. Questions about that should be directed to IHL.”

Additionally, White asserts that tuition-paying students “suffered” as a result of Thomas’ actions. The professor had already set forth an active lesson plan which students were engaged with for the week. Attorney Rob McDuff explained in a press release how Thomas was fulfilling his duties as a tenured professor.

James Thomas’ latest book, “Diversity Regimes,” examines how and why diversity initiatives at American universities often fail to make concrete changes to existing racial inequalities.

“Professor Thomas has chosen to provide them in advance with weekly lesson plans that consist of a combination of readings, videos of his own lectures that he has specifically recorded for the classes, other multimedia content, and assessments in the form of writing prompts, quizzes, data exercises, and discussion board participation.” 

Still, White’s assertions remain the same. “One student was worried because they were having trouble responding to a writing prompt,” White wrote after examining Thomas’ university emails with one of his agents. “Another could not access a lesson plan online. One student could not submit an assignment on time because of a technology problem and worried about getting full credit. Still another was worried about an assignment and asked if Prof. Thomas would be responding while on Scholar Strike.” 

Professor Thomas told this reporter that he replied to these student emails within the same week, saying that none of the students who expressed these concerns experienced a drop in grade points due to non-correspondence. 

The auditor said Thomas must pay the fine within 30 days or have his case referred to Attorney General Lynn Fitch’s Office.

CORRECTION: The above story reflects the use of the word “restitution” replacing the use of “retribution,” which is more accurate.

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