JACKSON, Miss (Clarion-Ledger) – State Auditor Shad White is pushing Ole Miss to fire one of its professors, James Thomas, saying Thomas illegally participated in a two-day strike last week.
White sent a letter to Ole Miss Chancellor Glenn Boyce on Monday describing a “work stoppage” the sociology professor participated in on Sept. 8 and 9. The nationwide event was called “Scholar Strike,” and involved professors and others in academia halting their classes and other duties to protest racism, police brutality and other racial injustice issues.
In the letter, White, a Republican who attended Ole Miss for his undergraduate degree, described Mississippi code that bans strikes or any other “concerted work stoppage.” He told Boyce the university should recoup money it paid Thomas for those days of work and pursue terminating the professor in court. Thomas was granted tenure last year, which gives him additional job security.
In an interview, White confirmed his office has been gathering documents and sent two agents to Thomas’ home last week. Thomas, he said, “wasn’t interested” in talking.
Thomas declined to comment Tuesday about the situation. An Ole Miss spokesperson said the university does not comment on personnel matters. In the letter, White thanked Boyce and the university for being “very cooperative in this matter.”
White said he began pursuing the case after seeing Thomas post on Twitter about Scholar Strike. He said he also found an email Thomas had sent to his students about the strike that “was circulating on the internet.”
A state auditor would not typically get involved in such university personnel issues. But White argued it’s his responsibility to “ensure that no public money is illegally spent,” including on a Mississippi employee who is not working due to a strike.
“You’ve got a professor that’s telling the world that he’s engaging in a strike,” White said. “I wanted to make sure, at minimum, he doesn’t get paid for those two days he went on strike, and I believe that falls completely under my purview.”
White added that few people go on strike in Mississippi, which has strict laws banning participation in them, or even encouraging and promoting them. “I cannot think of an example in my two years in office where we’ve had an employee who strikes, and who spells out in detail exactly what they are not doing in the strike,” he said.
“The law is the law,” White added.
A website about Scholar Strike says it was inspired by similar actions to highlight racial injustices by the NBA, WNBA, and by Colin Kaepernick and other athletes. A CNN story about the effort said 600 professors committed to join. They held a social media “teach-in,” which included posting videos teaching people about racism, policing and other issues.
“While we do not have a set of demands, our first and foremost goal is to call for a halt to the escalation of police violence and shootings of African Americans, and a call for racial justice and equity,” University of Pennsylvania professor Anthea Butler and Grand View University professor Kevin Gannon wrote on CNN.com, describing why they started the strike.
Their column noted it would be difficult for some professors to actually strike, if they were not tenured or were under collective bargaining agreements that banned striking. Those professors, Butler and Gannon wrote, “will be doing other actions” to raise awareness.
Thomas posted a number of times about the strike on Twitter. “I have strong feelings about this — if you have tenure, your #ScholarStrike activity needs to be a work stoppage,” he wrote on Sept. 6. “Tell your students you’re not working.” He later tweeted he’d emailed his students saying he would not be available for the two days.
State Auditor Shad White sent this letter Monday to Ole Miss Chancellor Glenn Boyce about a professor who recently participated in a racial injustice protest.
Several days later, he suggested he hadn’t totally halted all work: “100 percent of my job requires time spent thinking,” Thomas wrote. “Thinking before writing. Thinking while writing. Thinking before teaching. Thinking while teaching. If I’m thinking I’m working.”
Thomas, whose Twitter handle is @Insurgent_Prof, has long been a controversial figure at Ole Miss, ruffling the feathers of some of the university’s conservative alumni as well as the state’s Republican elected officials.
In 2018, he garnered attention — including from then-Gov. Phil Bryant — for calling on people to harass U.S. senators at restaurants around the time of Judge Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the U.S. Supreme Court. More recently he has posted critically about both Oxford’s and the university’s response to the coronavirus.
His effort to gain tenure last year was met with some resistance by the state’s College Board, but he was eventually approved, “with dissent.” Tenure allows permanent posts for professors, who can then usually only be fired for misconduct.
“Extramural activity, especially political speech, has no place in tenure decisions,” Thomas told the Associated Press at the time.
Nathan Shrader, a political science professor at Millsaps College, said White’s pursuit of Thomas appeared to be a “strange scenario” where the auditor — who has gained a reputation fighting government waste and fraud — was doing the opposite. “It actually seems like a waste of public resources, instead of something that benefits the public,” Shrader said.
White, 34, appears to have a bright political future in the state, with some suggesting he could one day be governor. Shrader noted White’s actions against Thomas would likely play well with Republican voters, whose distaste for higher education and certain college faculty in the President Donald Trump era has been demonstrated in polls.
“This certainly conforms with what you’re seeing as a national strategy from conservative politicians,” Shrader said.