01 Dec Response to State Auditor Shad White’s Demand that Ole Miss Prof. James Thomas Reimburse the State for Two Days of His Salary
STATEMENT OF ROB MCDUFF OF THE MISSISSIPPI CENTER FOR JUSTICE, ATTORNEY FOR PROFESSOR JAMES M. THOMAS, IN RESPONSE TO THE AUDITOR’S DECEMBER 1, 2020 DEMAND THAT PROFESSOR THOMAS REIMBURSE THE STATE FOR TWO DAYS’ SALARY
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.
For ease of reference, what follows is the prior statement McDuff issued for Professor Thomas on September 25, 2020.
In a letter sent to the Chancellor of the University of the Mississippi on September 14, State Auditor Shad White accused Professor James M. Thomas of participating in an illegal strike under Mississippi Code Section 37-9-75(2) when he joined college professors from around the country in a two-day #ScholarStrike to call attention to racism and injustice in this country. However, the plain language of that statute makes it clear that Professor Thomas did not violate it. Moreover, contrary to the implication of the letter, Professor Thomas fulfilled his duties as a tenured faculty member at the University during that week as he does throughout the year.
The Auditor’s letter claims that “[s]trikes are illegal in Mississippi” and “[t]he University should . . . proceed to court” to seek Professor Thomas’s termination for violating that law. Despite quoting several portions of that law, the Auditor studiously avoided quoting the key provision stating that any work stoppage is a “strike” only if it is “for the purpose of inducing, influencing or coercing a change in the conditions, compensation, rights, privileges or obligations of public employment.”
Professor Thomas did not join the #ScholarStrike to change his working conditions or increase his compensation. Instead, he did it as part of the national effort to highlight and combat racism and injustice. His actions clearly did not violate this law. Unfortunately, the Auditor, in this letter and in many public statements, interviews, and social media posts about Professor Thomas since, has failed even to mention this particular provision of the law. Instead, without justification, he has continued to claim that Professor Thomas’s actions were illegal under that law.
Because Professor Thomas plainly did not violate this law, there is no justification for the Auditor’s investigation and there never was one.
Professor Thomas is an accomplished scholar with a good reputation as a teacher. During the COVID-19 pandemic, he is teaching his classes remotely. Because of the varied scheduling challenges that the pandemic poses for some students, Professor Thomas has chosen to provide them in advance with weekly lesson plans that consist of a combination of readings, videos of his own lectures that he has specifically recorded for the classes, other multimedia content, and assessments in the form of writing prompts, quizzes, data exercises, and discussion board participation. The plans allow students to work in a way that makes the most sense for them in light of their individual schedules as long as they finish the work by the end of the week. For each lesson plan, Professor Thomas spends a significant amount of time reviewing course readings, preparing lectures, reviewing multimedia content, and constructing thoughtful discussion questions, assessments and assignments. He estimates that this is taking more time than the extensive preparation he did for in-person classes prior to the pandemic.
The two-day #ScholarsStrike occurred on a Tuesday and Wednesday when his students already had their lesson plan for the week and could work on it as they did every week, by reading the materials, viewing Professor Thomas’s lectures, and doing the other assignments that he had included. Moreover, on the Monday of that week, which was Labor Day, and the prior weekend, Professor Thomas responded to several emails from his students, including questions about course materials, content, and assignments. Moreover, as part of his academic duties, Professor Thomas worked the Labor Day holiday on the research and writing for a scholarly and continued to work on it that Tuesday and Wednesday.
Professor Thomas met his responsibilities as a teacher that week just as he does every week. The plain language of the law makes it clear that he did not violate it. Only by ignoring the key provision of the law has the Auditor been able to make his unfair accusation of illegal conduct by Professor Thomas. But since Professor Thomas did not act in violation of this law, there is no lawful basis for this investigation.
Mississippi Center for Justice is a nonprofit, public interest law firm committed to advancing racial and economic justice. Supported and staffed by attorneys and other professionals, the Center develops and pursues strategies to combat discrimination and poverty statewide.