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Statement in Support of Academic Freedom and Freedom of Speech

It is the mission of the United Campus Workers of Mississippi (UCW MS, Local 3565) to
champion and defend the interests and well-being of the university labor force of the state of
Mississippi. It is in this capacity that we speak out in response to recent actions taken by the
Board of Trustees of the Mississippi State Institutions of Higher Learning (IHL).

In its meeting on May 16, 2019, the Board of Trustees considered the tenure applications of 77
faculty members across the entire university system. The Board singled out one faculty member,
Dr. James Thomas from the University of Mississippi, and removed his name from the consent
agenda for the meeting. The Board instead considered his tenure application during a closed-
door executive session held at the conclusion of the meeting. The Board ultimately approved Dr.
Thomas’ tenure application—stating that, “it was the recommendation of the professor's
institution, the University of Mississippi, that carried the greatest weight in the majority of the
Board's decision to grant tenure to the professor,” but with dissent (as noted in the Board’s public
statement).

While we appreciate the university administration standing in support of academic freedom and
freedom of speech, we still must recognize the chilling effect the Board’s decision to merely
isolate a faculty member for tenure consideration—or isolate any campus worker for their
speech—can have on academic freedom and freedom of speech. We want to make clear that we
stand in solidarity with any campus worker whose rights have been threatened or violated.

In terms of this specific case, the Board’s stated reasons for singling out Dr. Thomas included:

recent concerns regarding certain statements by the professor on social media, [and]
whether those statements were in keeping with the requirements for tenure set out in IHL
Policies 402.03 and 403.0101, which require, in part, that the Board and heads of its
institutions consider the candidate's effectiveness in interpersonal relationships, including
professional ethics and cooperativeness, in making decisions regarding tenure.

The Board’s statement refers to social media posts made by Dr. Thomas on Oct. 6, 2018 in his
private capacity as a citizen-activist.

The Board diverged from past precedent by even considering Dr. Thomas as perhaps ineligible
for tenure after he received approval from every entity—beginning with his own department, and
including his Department Chair, the Dean of the College of Liberal Arts, the Dean of the
Graduate School, the Provost, and the Chancellor—at his university. Moreover, it is our
contention that some Board members sought to dismiss Dr. Thomas from his academic position
based on partisan politics, which constitutes an egregious violation of Dr. Thomas’ constitutional
right to free speech. This attempt to deny tenure to Dr. Thomas also constitutes a violation of the
institutional right to academic freedom granted to faculty members by the University of
Mississippi and the Mississippi State IHL system. Finally, these Board members appear to have
violated the Board’s own bylaws— the “board shall perform [its duties]… uninfluenced by any
political considerations” (IHL Board of Trustees Policies and Bylaws, Section 201.01); “The
Board shall have the power and authority to terminate any such contract… but never for political
reasons” (401.0101).

In taking these actions, the Board jeopardized not only its legitimacy as a nonpartisan body and
violated the public trust, but also the accreditation status of the universities under its jurisdiction.
The Board’s actions will potentially have a chilling effect on the exercise of academic freedom
across the IHL system, threatening to undermine one of the core tenets of higher education in
Mississippi.

The UCW MS strives to unite and represent the interests of the diverse workforce (including
part-time and full-time staff, faculty, and student laborers) present at the institutions of higher
learning in the state of Mississippi. We strongly condemn the actions taken by some Board
members to diverge from precedent, to violate Board bylaws, to undermine academic freedom,
and to infringe on the constitutional liberties afforded U.S. citizens. When the meeting minutes
are approved and made public after the Board’s next scheduled meeting on June 20, 2019, we
hope they are transparent and provide greater details about the actions taken by the Board.