A state auditor, Shad White, is pressuring the University of Mississippi to fire tenured sociology professor Dr. James M. Thomas for participating in a two-day strike for racial justice, the Clarion Ledger reported.
Thomas was one of many academics across the country who recently joined the “Scholar Strike” on Sept. 8 and 9, taking a pause from their day-to-day work to teach about racism via YouTube and social media.
“I’ve emailed my classes to let them know I won’t be available the next two days,” Thomas tweeted. “I’ve pointed them toward @ScholarStrike resources to understand why so many of us are joining in this national call to action.”
In a letter on Monday, White reportedly told Chancellor Dr. Glenn Boyce that the university should reclaim Thomas’s pay for the days he didn’t work and terminate him for publicly joining a strike, which he argued is against Mississippi state law.
White, a Republican alumnus, also told the Clarion Ledger that he sent two agents to Thomas’ home last week but the professor “wasn’t interested” in talking. “You’ve got a professor that’s telling the world that he’s engaging in a strike,” White said. “I wanted to make sure, at minimum, he doesn’t get paid for those two days he went on strike, and I believe that falls completely under my purview.”
The university told Diverse it couldn’t discuss personnel matters, and Thomas declined to comment.
Strike co-organizer Dr. Kevin Gannon felt “outrage” on Thomas’s behalf, but he wasn’t surprised by the backlash. Gannon is the director for the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning and a professor of history at Grand View University.
“This sort of thing is sadly predictable,” he said. White “is just the latest in a long line of right-wing politicians who think they can stir up culture war type stuff and ride that to electoral success. I think it’s extraordinarily cynical and violates academic freedom and is really just kind of pompous grandstanding.”
The organizers recognized that some scholars who wanted to strike would come up against anti-strike law codes, like Mississippi’s, or union contracts that wouldn’t allow it. Adjunct and nontenured faculty could also find themselves in a “precarious” position, so Gannon encouraged scholars to take advantage of the teach-ins online, even if they couldn’t take off work.
“We knew that anybody that wanted to participate in it would have to come at it in different ways,” he said. “We knew that there would be a … range of participation.”
Much like the University of Mississippi controversy, the Scholar Strike itself started with a tweet.
“I would be down as a professor to follow the NBA and Strike for a few days to protest police violence in America,” posted Dr. Anthea Butler, associate professor of religious studies and Africana studies at the University of Pennsylvania.
She wrote the tweet on Aug. 26, the same day the Milwaukee Bucks refused to take the court after police shot Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin, followed by an NBA player wildcat strike. When Gannon saw the post, he reached out to ask if he could help.
Butler didn’t expect the Scholar Strike to grow as big as it did. But, by the end, about 5,000 people had signed up to receive Scholar Strike resources in their inboxes. The YouTube channel hosted 58 different video teach-ins on everything from cultural appropriation to the dangers of performative allyship to police brutality to redlining. And the #ScholarStrike hashtag was used more than 200 times.
“For me, what stands out is the willingness of everyone to jump on board and be active and involved,” especially during a pandemic, she said.
She appreciated the range of scholars who participated, as well.
“One of the unintended byproducts of this is people who do really care about these issues but don’t necessarily teach in these areas learned a lot that day from the things that were shared, either online or on campus through teach-ins,” Butler said. That showed “enormous potential” for academics to think more deeply about how ethnic studies intersects with their own disciplines.
Granted, academia still has a long way to go in its work toward racial justice, she added. She wants to see university leaders studying the relationships between campuses and the communities that surround them, their curriculum and their campus policing protocols, among other steps.
“These issues aren’t just things that are happening outside our institutions but inside our institutions too,” she said. Campuses aren’t “hermetically sealed.”
She also stressed that universities need to be aware that Black faculty and students are still reeling from the police killings this summer and that fighting racial injustice can’t fall to Black faculty alone.
“Many institutions are burning out … Black faculty and asking them to be the torchbearers for all the justice issues and all the racial issues,” she said. “This is really wearing to me. If you teach slavery and you teach civil rights and then you have to see this continual parade of Black bodies on TV, that does something to me too. And I think that the institutions need to start thinking about how that affects us, especially if that’s what we teach and what we do.”
Gannon hopes scholars who have been teaching about racial injustice feel “some solidarity, some sense of not being alone” after the strike. The goal wasn’t to host a “one-off” event but to build a community that will continue after it.
“We need all the community we can get,” he said. “…Those of us who care about higher ed and those of us who care about teaching and learning and justice and equity, we’re all we got.”
Sara Weissman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.