May 17, 2019 10:22:43 AM
JACKSON -- A University of Mississippi sociology professor criticized for encouraging "acts of aggression" against Republican politicians was granted tenure by a divided College Board on Thursday.
Trustees approved the promotion of Professor James Michael Thomas after pulling only his name from a list of 76 routine tenure approvals and debating his case in a two-hour closed session.
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."
A later statement from the board, which oversees Mississippi's eight public universities, said Thomas was approved "with dissent."
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 AP. He cited academic freedom guidelines saying professors shouldn't face workplace consequences for unpopular statements.
Thomas appeared to be in good shape for tenure last fall, publishing prolifically and winning multiple awards. But as 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 piled 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.
Vitter no longer leads Ole Miss. 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 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. Typically, they can only be fired 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 College 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 in 1928 fired the heads of three institutions and a number of faculty member. The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools revoked the schools' accreditation 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.
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