State Auditor Shad White issued a nearly $2,000 demand to University of Mississippi professor James Thomas, who participated in a two-day “work stoppage” in early September.
Thomas, an outspoken sociology professor who has regularly drawn the public scorn of top statewide Republican elected officials, participated in a national walkout on Sept. 8-9 called the “Scholar Strike,” in which hundreds of faculty at universities across the nation protested police brutality and other racial inequities. Thomas called it a “work stoppage” on Twitter.
The $1,912.42 demand includes $946.74 for principal and $965.68 for interest and investigative costs, according to the auditor’s office.
“‘Concerted work stoppages’ and strikes are illegal under Mississippi’s no-strike law, and paying someone for not working violates Sections 66 and 96 of the state constitution,” White said in a press release. “It’s simple—the taxpayers of Mississippi cannot pay someone when they did not provide the good or service they were hired to provide.”
In the Tuesday press release, White chronicled his office’s investigation into the matter. He said auditors discovered Thomas did not return several students’ emails during the two days in early September.
“In short, he refused to perform his job duties, and his tuition-paying students suffered as a result,” White said. “The taxpayers and donors to the university suffered, too. When Prof. Thomas realized he was going to be called on the carpet for not performing these duties, he attempted to explain by saying, ‘100 percent of my job requires time spent thinking . . . . If I’m thinking I’m working.’”
White continued: “Thinking isn’t going to cut it with me. If an employee of the state auditor’s office came to me and said they would not be responding to my emails, they would not be at work, they would not be performing audits, they would not be available for calls, they would not be available for meetings, and that this was a work stoppage, but they would be thinking over the next two days, I would not pay them.”
White previously said the University of Mississippi should fire Thomas, writing that Thomas broke the law and the university should pursue termination. In his press release this week, the auditor said that termination considerations should be made by the 12-member board of trustees of the Mississippi Institutions of Higher Learning.
Thomas could not be immediately reached by phone on Tuesday. White explained his reasoning for the investigation in a podcast interview with Mississippi Today in September.
Thomas has been the subject of public scrutiny in the past. After conservatives called into question a tweet of Thomas’ last year, the state’s college board took the unprecedented step of considering whether to grant Thomas tenure in a closed-door meeting. Then-Gov. Phil Bryant weighed in, suggesting Thomas shouldn’t receive tenure. The board ultimately granted Thomas tenure, but conservatives made Thomas the poster of progressive ideals at the university.
Thomas’ attorney Rob McDuff, director of impact litigation at Mississippi Center for Justice, released the following statement on Tuesday afternoon:
“Because of the pandemic and students varied schedules, Professor Thomas was not teaching specific classes on specific days last fall, but instead provided students with weekly lesson plans that included lectures he had recorded, reading assignments, quizzes, multimedia content, and other materials. While he joined college professors from around the country in a two day #ScholarStrike to call attention to racism and injustice, he worked the prior weekend and the Labor Day holiday to prepare the lesson plans.
During the two-day call to action, Professor Thomas also worked toward finishing a manuscript for publication. He missed no classes and was available to students both before and after the strike, as he is most weekdays, evenings, and weekends. Professor Thomas’s actions did not violate any law and he does not owe the State any money. If the Auditor wants to pay him extra for the personal days he has not used, the weekends and holidays he has worked over the years, including those he worked preparing the lesson plan that week, then maybe we can talk about whether he should pay any money because of his participation in the #ScholarStrike. Professor Thomas is a good teacher who works hard for his students and who earns his salary.”