How a tweet about eating a colleague almost stopped a professor from receiving tenure

Posted on Jun 27 2019 - 5:00am by Daniel Payne

A month after The Mississippi Board of Trustees of State Institutions of Higher Learning took the unusual step of discussing whether to grant Professor James Thomas tenure, the board released minutes detailing the two-hour closed session in which trustees focused on a tweet from January in which Thomas said, in part, that he ate a conservative professor.

The minutes reveal that the tweet that was most notable to the board was Thomas’s response to Elizabeth Crisp, a reporter for The Advocate in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, after she reported that a woman at the 2019 Southern Republican Leadership Conference said that there “are three, maybe four,” conservative professors at the university.

Ole Miss sociology professor James Thomas has received backlash from hundreds of people, including the former Chancellor of the University of Mississippi, Jeff Vitter and Our State Flag Foundation, for things posted on his Twitter account. Thomas Photo by Devna Bose

“The truth is there used to be three or four conservative professors at UM,” Thomas responded. “But we used two for a blood sacrifice to the ghost of Eugene Debs, another we forced to watch and she was subsequently converted, and I ate the fourth because his tears tasted like candy.”

Thomas’s tenure, which will be effective July 1, was confirmed by a 7-5 vote during the May 16 meeting. Provost Noel Wilkin and Interim Chancellor Larry Sparks, along with attorney Mark Waggoner, whom the board brought in as a First Amendment expert, were part of the conversation. They did not vote, and the university has declined to comment on the session.

Trustee Ford Dye, the chair of the Board Search Committee for the new chancellor, voted against granting Thomas tenure. 

“I think the vast majority of people will see that tweet for what it was intended to be: satire,” Thomas said. “Were there really serious concerns (from the Board of Trustees) about cannibalism, or was it something else?”

There was also “much discussion” about Thomas’s academic achievements and reasons for his tenure, according to the minutes. The trustees decided that the recommendation from the university held the greatest weight in the discussion.

In the minutes, the board said the decision had to be made whether Thomas violated IHL and UM policies. The IHL policies in question “require, in part, that the Board and heads of institutions consider a candidate’s effectiveness in interpersonal relationships,” the June minutes stated.

The UM policy discussed was “The Statement Concerning Academic Freedom,” which states that professors “should strive at all times to be accurate, should exercise appropriate restraint, should show respect for the opinions of others.”

Trustees were particularly concerned with whether Thomas’s tweet showed respect for other opinions. 

“Some Trustees expressed their view that this tweet did not reflect on a matter of public concern nor did it serve an academic purpose or contribute to public debate on any issue,” the minutes stated. “Trustees recognized that the Board must at all times protect the academic freedom of the institutions and their ability to safely and effectively educate students but also recognized that there are limits to academic freedom.”

Trustees Steven Cunningham, Shane Hooper, Bruce Martin, Alfred McNair, Gee Ogletree, Hal Parker and Walt Starr voted for the motion to grant Thomas tenure. Trustees Tom Duff, Ford Dye, Ann Lamar, Jeanne Luckey and Chip Morgan voted against the motion.

“IHL made an historically unprecedented move,” Thomas said. “That is chilling. It does chill people’s speech. I don’t think the IHL understands that. They’ve made nothing publicly known that they understand that.”

IHL declined to comment on Thomas’s specific statements, only releasing the minutes and a press release from May.

“Business is not normal,” Thomas said of the protection of academic freedom on campus. “It is going to come under assault again.”