Last Monday, Sept. 14, Mississippi state auditor Shad White recommended the firing of tenured UM sociology professor James Thomas, citing a law banning strikes. Thomas had participated in #ScholarStrike, a nationwide call to professors to bring awareness to racial violence and justice. Thomas was not the only professor at the university to strike last week, but his presence on social media has resulted in enemies at the local and state level. The recent threats to Thomas’s job by the state auditor and threats to his life by his online antagonists exemplify the political nature of education and the fraught landscape of campus free speech.
Professor Thomas, a self-proclaimed “Sower of Discourse,” does not shy away from voicing his beliefs. When Professor Thomas was under consideration for tenure last summer, the IHL Board of Trustees nearly refused to grant it to him, with a vote of 7-5. The divisive vote can be tied to a sardonic tweet about conservative professors at the university.
A commitment to academic freedom protected his tenure track, but the politics of higher education almost intervened. The IHL Board consists of those appointed by the governor, and the board that barely approved Thomas’s tenure was fully appointed by Republican former Gov. Phil Bryant. Shad White’s recent actions reflect a longstanding attempt at the state level to silence Thomas for his progressive opinions.
Despite making tenure, Thomas has faced continued outrage because of his publicly voiced opinions. Although the university has not yet spoken out in defense of Thomas’s rights and denounced the threats made against him, university administrators were quick to send letters about him to politicians before. Thomas’s criticisms of Mayor Robyn Tannehill’s COVID-19 response elicited a hand-written apology letter by the university’s Special Assistant to the Chancellor for Governmental Affairs, calling him a “cold and timid soul” and an “embarrassment to the university.”
Let me be clear, the Confederate monument is an embarrassment to this campus and its values, not a professor who posts satirical tweets using his guaranteed academic freedom.
Professor Thomas’s subject matter, sociology and race studies, makes people face uncomfortable truths about the history of our university. Under a presidential administration that called a subset of the social sciences, critical race theory, “divisive, anti-American propaganda,” it is no surprise that people have begun to attack Professor Thomas for simply doing his job — engaging his students in his subject matter’s discourse in real-time.
Perhaps what is most ironic about the tirades against Thomas is that freedom of speech on campuses, though a bipartisan issue in nature, has been adopted as a critical issue by conservatives claiming persecution. A professor’s speech, so long as it does not contradict the university’s mission to “create, evaluate, share, and apply knowledge in a free, open, and inclusive environment of intellectual inquiry,” should be protected. The attempt to remove Professor his tenure in response to his strike blocks his right to profess his truth and advocate for the better interest of his students, and the university should protect any professor that fights for his or her students despite such opposition.
Katie Dames is the opinion editor from Saint Louis, Missouri, majoring in international studies.