State Auditor Shad White’s call for the University of Mississippi to fire sociology professor James Thomas brings to mind James W. Silver.
The personalities and circumstances are different but the two scenarios are similar in that they both involved professors raising the ire of state officials not authorized to do the firing themselves.
In the current case, State Auditor White is charging that Thomas, by his own admission, participated in a two-day work stoppage billed as a nationwide “scholar strike” involving professors halting their classes to protest racial injustice issues.
There’s a Mississippi law against school teachers striking, and White wants Ole Miss to dock Thomas’ pay for the days he didn’t work as well as terminating his employment at the university.
White is a tough auditor, and he has earned a reputation for going after those who misuse public funds, regardless of political party or affiliation.
Probably he, like many of his fellow Ole Miss alums, is offended by Thomas’ past behavior which includes telling Twitter followers last year to disrupt Republican senators’ meals by sticking their hands into their food at restaurants.
To many Mississippians, Thomas does seem like an obnoxious fellow.
But some are wondering whether White’s move against Thomas is more about grandstanding to Republican voters and critics of liberal college professors than recovering misspent funds. It has been speculated that White may have spent more on his investigation of Thomas than two days worth of the professor’s pay.
Since Thomas has tenure, firing him won't be easy. He can argue, as he already has on Twitter, that he was actually working those two days.
Ole Miss graduate Christine Dickason, who is currently pursuing her Ph.D. in Education Policy at Vanderbilt University, wrote a column in the Clarion Ledger defending Thomas, opining that since his teaching revolves around race and racial inequities, “his participation in the scholar strike is not a deviation or ‘stoppage’ of his work” but “a powerful way for him to engage with racial issues happening outside the bounds of the classroom, off the pages of any book. His students will gain much more from his scholar strike experiences than through a PowerPoint lecture.”
We’ll see how it plays out.
If Thomas is fired or forced out of Ole Miss, he is almost assured of landing on a faculty somewhere else. Getting run out of Mississippi may even help him.
But I doubt he’ll be another Jim Silver who essentially was run out of Mississippi and later celebrated as a hero.
Silver, 1907-1988, was a history professor at Ole Miss from 1936 to 1964 and later was on the faculties of Notre Dame and South Florida.
He came under extreme pressure from Mississippi politicians, including Gov. Ross Barnett, for befriending James Meredith, the first Black student at the university, and also for what they considered his disparaging of Mississippi in speeches and his book, “Mississippi: The Closed Society.”
Efforts by the state’s Sovereignty Commission and others to have Silver fired failed, but he was harassed, threatened and ostracized. Fearing for his family’s safety, he left Ole Miss for a position at Notre Dame. Later he moved to the University of South Florida, where he taught until his retirement in 1981. He told his story in a 1984 memoir, “Running Scared: Silver in Mississippi.”
Nearly two decades after leaving Ole Miss, Silver returned to donate his papers to the university, delivering a well-received speech. In 2011 the university honored Silver by naming a campus pond after him and by holding a symposium on his impact on the school and the state.