The University of Mississippi Faculty Senate passed two resolutions last night in a show of support for embattled sociologist and UM professor James Thomas.
The professor has been the subject of an investigation by Mississippi State Auditor Shad White, who contends that the academic violated a state anti-strike law by participating in Scholar Strike to raise awareness among students about racial-justice and policing issues. The auditor sent two armed agents to visit Thomas at his home and subpoenaed his course materials. Additionally, White seeks to recoup two days’ worth of pay from Thomas for participating in Scholar Strike, as well as interest and investigative fees.
The faculty senate was clear Tuesday night that members believe White’s actions could be harmful to the university’s independence and would chill academic freedom.
“Whereas the actions of State Auditor threaten to interfere in the internal affairs of the University thereby jeopardizing its independence and vitality, threaten to chill academic freedom essential for higher education, and threaten to chill protected speech,” one resolution read.
“Therefore, be it resolved that the senate of the faculty of the University of Mississippi expresses grave concern over the actions of the Mississippi state auditor and calls upon the administration of the University of Mississippi to publicly resist any such examples of undue external influence and to support academic freedom and freedom of expression.”
Administration Tight-lipped About Thomas
The UM administration has remained tight-lipped about the State of Mississippi’s investigation of Thomas and has refused all attempts by the Mississippi Free Press to discuss the situation in an interview, only offering that they would not comment on personnel matters.
Thomas has received death rights for asserting his personal views while at the University of Mississippi.
On the morning of Sept., 18, Thomas tweeted, “If the university cannot find the courage necessary to protect its faculty’s academic freedom, can it find the conviction to denounce death threats made toward its faculty?”
In a resolution passed Tuesday night, the Faculty Senate called on Chancellor Glenn Boyce and the University of Mississippi administration to: “reaffirm their commitment to the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure with respect to how the administration deals with the faculty who have been exposed to attack; rebuff all attempts by any and all external forces which unduly attack the faculty and thereby distract from the mission of the University of Mississippi; and expeditiously make known their intention to take action with respect to faculty members.”
The state auditor has remained staunch in his pursuit of Thomas and wrote this morning in a Dec. 9 email newsletter that “someone had to step up and enforce the law.”
“I knew I would take abuse from the radical Left when I did this, because they love Prof. Thomas and his views,” White wrote. “But his viewpoints do not give him the right to not show up for work. And even though he and his friends will call me every name in the book, I knew someone had to step up and enforce the law—for you, the taxpayers.”
‘Tenured (With Dissent)’
Thomas is an outspoken academic who is known for his bold online presence, which has caused many, including state officials, to bristle and call for his firing. However, he has received an outpouring of support from the academic community and watchdog groups like Scholars at Risk.
The anti-racism scholar 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.
Last Tuesday, the Mississippi Free Press reported that Auditor White issued a demand to Thomas for $1912.42, nearly half of which is made up of investigative fees the auditor’s office incurred.
Mississippi Center For Justice attorney Rob McDuff is defending Thomas. McDuff is known in part for successfully defending Curtis Flowers, a Mississippi man who was falsely imprisoned for over two decades. Seemingly unmoved by the auditor’s demand for payment, attorney McDuff offered a brief public response to the issue.
“Professor Thomas’s actions did not violate any law, and he does not owe the State any money,” McDuff stated.
On Dec. 3, White and right-wing conservative talk-show host Paul Gallo disparaged both McDuff and Thomas on the air, but without actually addressing the heart of the attorney’s defense—that the state law against teachers striking explicitly does not apply to participating in Scholar Strike.
Correction: The original version of this story said that White, not Thomas, tweeted the following. It is corrected above with apologies. “If the university cannot find the courage necessary to protect its faculty’s academic freedom, can it find the conviction to denounce death threats made toward its faculty?”