Professor granted tenure after concern over past social media posts delays process

Posted on May 16 2019 - 5:32pm by Staff Report

James Thomas, a sociology professor with a history of controversial social media posts, was granted tenure by the IHL Board of Trustees on Thursday.

Thomas’s name was pulled from a list of 77 tenure approvals in Mississippi’s eight public universities, and the decision to approve or deny his tenure was debated in a two-hour closed session. The board said in a statement that it considered “the candidate’s effectiveness in interpersonal relationships” in its decision.

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. Photo by Devna Bose

The decision was made “with dissent,” but “ultimately it was the recommendation of the professor’s institution, the University of Mississippi, that carried the greatest weight in the majority of the Board’s decision to grant tenure to the professor,” according to a statement released by the board on Thursday.

Higher Education Commissioner Al Rankins confirmed to The Associated Press that a majority of trustees voted for tenure. Rankins said that a denial could have imperiled “the accreditation of our campuses.”

Thomas expressed relief at achieving tenure, a key career milestone for most academics, but questioned the propriety of being singled out.

“Extramural activity, especially political speech, has no place in tenure decisions,” he said in a phone interview Thursday with The Associated Press. He cited academic freedom guidelines, saying professors shouldn’t face workplace consequences for unpopular statements.

Thomas published prolifically and won multiple awards last fall, leading many to believe he was in a good position to obtain tenure.

“Our institutions of higher education are hostage to the IHL Board, a political body that wields far too much autonomy over academic decisions,” Antonia Eliason, an assistant professor of law at the University of Mississippi, tweeted. “Despite the outcome, this should never have been an issue. Academic freedom in Mississippi is in jeopardy.”

Eliason said that, compared to other states, Mississippi’s IHL Board of Trustees has an outsized role in making decisions for the public universities in the state, which “is really problematic.”

When Brett Kavanaugh was confirmed to the U.S. Supreme Court on Oct. 6, Thomas tweeted a reply to MSNBC host Joe Scarborough. Scarborough had tweeted that people should not yell at senators, shout at people in restaurants or “rage about past votes.” Thomas disagreed.

“Don’t just interrupt a senator’s meal, y’all,” Thomas wrote. “Put your whole damn fingers in their salads. Take their apps and distribute them to the other diners. Bring boxes and take their food home with you on the way out. They don’t deserve your civility.”

The tweet got slammed at the national level, where Republicans criticize what they see as liberal indoctrination at public universities, and at the state level, where Ole Miss administrators face continuing resistance to the school’s decades-long dismantling of Confederate symbols.

Then-chancellor Jeffrey Vitter criticized Thomas, although not by name, writing on Facebook that the post “did not reflect the values articulated by the university, such as respect for the dignity of each individual and civility and fairness.”

Republican Gov. Phil Bryant weighed in, tweeting: “This is troubling and disappointing to see from one of our university professors. There is no place in a civilized society, and particularly on a college campus, for urging individuals to harass anyone.”

For his part, Thomas said he doesn’t retract the statement. “I don’t regret a damn thing,” he said Thursday.

Interim Chancellor Larry Sparks declined comment Thursday when he emerged from behind closed doors with trustees.

Thomas said supporters had contacted trustees, warning that a denial could lead to national embarrassment or accreditation sanctions for Ole Miss and Mississippi’s seven other public universities. Rankins said the board on Wednesday received a letter from the American Association of University Professors voicing concerns about Thomas’ case. That faculty group can censure universities, but doesn’t control accreditation.

“There have been a lot of phone calls to them and other … board members about how catastrophic this would be for the universities,” Thomas said.

Academic tenure grants permanent posts to professors, which can typically only be terminated for misconduct or if a university has financial troubles. It’s meant in part to guarantee freedom of speech and research.

Mississippi’s university system has a long history of struggles over academic freedom. The 12-member IHL Board was enshrined in the state Constitution in 1942, with the amendment saying trustees should be “uninfluenced by any political considerations.” The move came after Gov. Theodore Bilbo fired the heads of three institutions and a number of faculty members in 1928. The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools revoked the schools’ accreditations for several years, devaluing the degrees they granted.

The board, though, has rarely been free from politics. Trustees worked with politicians to prevent the enrollment of James Meredith at Ole Miss in 1962. The board also banned many speakers from college campuses for much of the 1960s, trying to prevent pro-civil rights speeches.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.