Last-Minute Tenure Threat

A professor's future at the University of Mississippi was uncertain for several hours Thursday as the statewide governing board debated his social media record before finally granting him tenure.

May 17, 2019
 
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Governing boards typically rubber-stamp tenure bids for professors whose colleagues and administrators have already recommended them for promotion.

But the tenure bid of one University of Mississippi sociologist hung in the balance Thursday as the Board of Trustees of State Institutions of Higher Learning debated his record for two hours in a closed-door session. None of the other dozens of professors up for promotion triggered such a discussion.

James M. Thomas, the sociologist, was ultimately granted tenure -- with dissent, the board said in an announcement. The public notice didn’t refer to Thomas by name but made clear it was him in citing “recent concerns regarding certain statements by the professor on social media.”

In October, during the national debate over U.S. Supreme Court justice Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation, Thomas caught flak from Mississippi’s then president, Jeffrey Vitter, for tweeting, “Don’t just interrupt a senator’s meal, y’all.” At the time, several GOP figures -- including Texas senator Ted Cruz and White House spokesperson Sarah Sanders -- had been disrupted by public critics at restaurants, prompting discussions about whether that's acceptable.

Put “your whole damn fingers in their salads,” Thomas said. “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.”

Vitter soon appeared to criticize Thomas on his own Facebook page, writing that an unnamed professor’s social media post “did not reflect the values articulated by the university, such as respect for the dignity of each individual and civility and fairness.”

While “I passionately support free speech,” Vitter said, “I condemn statements that encourage acts of aggression.”

Thomas’s statement also received national media attention -- much of it negative. Mississippi state senator Chris McDaniel was among those who publicly urged Mississippi to punish Thomas, saying, “Another threat from another low-life liberal,” and, “It’s time for disciplinary action.”

Thomas, who’s said he received threats over his post, didn’t stop tweeting. He later said, “Run for office. Get elected. Pass legislation that harms large groups of people. And I will stick my whole foot in your lunch. Deal?”

The board said in its announcement that it examined whether “those statements were in keeping with the requirements for tenure” set by university policy. Those include the examining the "candidate's effectiveness in interpersonal relationships, including professional ethics and cooperativeness, in making decisions regarding tenure," it said.

The board said it was also mindful of the university's Statement Concerning Academic Freedom, which says, in part, that “As a person of learning and an educational officer, he/she should remember that the public may judge his/her profession and his/her institution by his/her utterances.” So “he/she should strive at all times to be accurate, should exercise appropriate restraint, [and] should show respect for the opinions of others,” notes the statement, which is inspired by widely followed standards of the American Association of University Professors.

In the end, though, the university’s endorsement of Thomas’s tenure “carried the greatest weight in the majority of the board's decision” to grant him tenure, the trustees said.

Many on social media have praised Thomas's achievements as a scholar and teacher, while also saying that the board's actions at its meeting and even its announcement will chill free speech going forward. Thomas's tenure never should have been in question, they said.

"At the end of the day, the university's governance systems should have been respected," Jonathan Friedman, project director for campus speech at PEN America, said on Twitter, for example. "Remiss that we have yet another instance of a public board in higher ed taking actions that will chill the public speech of scholars."

Friedman said later Thursday that the trustees may have been concerned with "public uproar over granting tenure to a professor whose social media posts have received considerable scrutiny. But they made the right choice in the end, affirming the importance of defending speech even when it is unpopular in some corners. If a single tweet can be used by political appointees to nullify an entire academic career, then what message does that send junior professors?" 

He added via email, "I fear the potential chilling effects of these actions, how they send the message that academics risk their careers if they express the 'wrong' political opinions."

Thomas said via email that he's "thankful for the university administration's support of my tenure and promotion. I'm disappointed the [board] moved to consider me separately and outside of public view, and am concerned about the precedent they've now set going forward."

A board spokesperson did not immediately share the vote tally for Thomas's tenure.

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