Ole Miss faculty: Auditor demand on professor hurts academic freedom

Published 4:54 pm Wednesday, December 9, 2020

Faculty leaders at the University of Mississippi are expressing concerns about academic freedom after the state auditor demanded nearly $2,000 from a tenured professor who took part in a two-day “scholar strike” to bring attention to racism and injustice.

The Faculty Senate on the Oxford campus adopted two resolutions Tuesday night, with one saying that “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.”

Auditor Shad White on Dec. 1 demanded $1,912 from sociology professor James Thomas, who took part in a Sept. 8-9 work stoppage. More than half of White’s demand is for the professor to pay the auditor’s investigative costs and interest. White said Thomas did not teach or respond to email from students during those days.

Subscribe to our free email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox

“In short, he refused to perform his job duties, and his tuition-paying students suffered as a result,” White said in a news release about the demand. “The taxpayers and donors to the university suffered, too.”

White reiterated his statement Wednesday in an email from his campaign account and added: “I knew I would take abuse from the radical Left when I did this, because they love Prof. Thomas and his views. But his viewpoints do not give him the right to not show up for work.”

The nationwide scholar strike involved professors and others halting their classes and other duties to bring attention to issues such as mass incarceration. Organizers said the event was inspired by pro football player Colin Kaepernick and players from the NBA and WNBA who have brought attention to police shootings and “racialized violence.”

White sent a letter to the university’s chancellor, Glenn Boyce, on Sept. 14 about Thomas’s participation in the work stoppage. White said then that the university should recover money it paid Thomas for those days of work and should go to court to try to remove him from his job. Thomas was granted tenure in 2019, which gives him additional job security.

Mississippi law bans public employees from striking. Thomas’s attorney, Rob McDuff, said in September that Thomas was not trying to change his work conditions or increase his pay — two elements required to define participation in a strike.

The second resolution adopted by the Faculty Senate on Tuesday calls on Boyce and other top administrators to affirm their commitment to academic freedom and to “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.”

The resolution said that the university lost accreditation in 1930 because of political interference. That happened when the governor replaced the university’s chancellor and some faculty members were fired.

Boyce said in a statement Wednesday that the Faculty Senate “plays an important role on our campus” and he would respond to the resolutions in coming days.

“As an institution of higher learning, there is no more important principle on our campus than academic freedom,” Boyce said. “Our institution is built upon the fundamental principles of academic freedom and freedom of expression, and we encourage all those engaged in our academic enterprise to recognize those principles and the responsibilities that accompany them.”

McDuff said in September that Thomas has taught classes online because of the coronavirus pandemic. McDuff said the professor prepared lectures and reading assignments and allowed students to work at their own pace each week, including the week that included the “scholar strike.”

White was appointed state auditor in July 2018 by then-Gov. Phil Bryant, a fellow Republican. After Brett Kavanaugh was confirmed to the U.S. Supreme Court in October 2018, Thomas came under broad criticism from conservatives after the professor said on Twitter that people should disrupt U.S. senators’ meals. “They don’t deserve your civility,” Thomas wrote.

Bryant, at the time, criticized Thomas. “There is no place in a civilized society, and particularly on a college campus, for urging individuals to harass anyone,” Bryant wrote on Twitter.