/The history behind IHL’s tenure policies for Mississippi faculty

The history behind IHL’s tenure policies for Mississippi faculty

Mississippi News Nonprofit Last month, the Institutions of Higher Learning Board of Trustees shocked Mississippi faculty when it voted without any discussion to change criteria for some of its tenure. The changes were made without faculty input. Presidents could use the criteria to target marginalized or outspoken colleagues in Mississippi. This is especially true considering IHL used similar language during the civil rights movement to expel liberal professors. Tenure is a job safety measure that ensures faculty cannot be fired for not having just cause. IHL’s policy modifications allow university presidents to use new criteria to determine whether tenure is granted after a six-year-long, rigorous review process. These criteria include a faculty member’s “collegiality,” effectiveness, accuracy, integrity in communications, and “contumacious behavior,” which was previously only part of the dismissal policy. Brian LaPierre, outgoing president of University of Southern Mississippi’s faculty senate, said that it is not clear what these terms actually mean in practice. “They will have to be defined.” According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, contumacious is “stubbornly disobedient or rebellious.” For years, IHL has used the term in employment contracts as a reason for faculty members being dismissed. How does the IHL define this term? Caron Blanton, spokesperson for IHL, stated that the board doesn’t define contumacious behavior in its policies but that it “is based on the standard definition” of the word and aligns to language in tenured or tenure-track contracts. Contumacious conduct is an uncommon standard in higher education. The American Association of University Professors conducted a 2005 survey and found that only two colleges included the term in their dismissal policies. This term is a well-known Mississippi tradition. The term has a long history in Mississippi. Silver was regarded as a “threat to the status-quo” in Mississippi for his support of minimum wage laws, criticisms of the Confederacy and false suspicions that he was Jewish. Silver gave an angry speech in North Carolina. He said that white supremacy had been so calcified in Mississippi that it had created a “climate where non-conformity was forbidden, where the White man is not free, and where he does no dare express a deviationing opinion without looking over his shoulders.” Segregationist politicians immediately condemned Silver’s talk, and asked the IHL board for help to fire him. John Bell Williams, a U.S. representative, stated to the Mississippi L.P. Gas Dealers Association, “The time has come for us to fumigate some college staffs and get those that will teach Americanism, not foreign ideologies.” However, the IHL board had limited options in responding to these calls. Two years prior, UM denied William Murphy, a law professor and member of the American Civil Liberties Union, tenure. After the backlash, the board established its first state-wide tenure policy. It would risk losing its accreditation if IHL fired Silver. Five months later, wire reports stated that the board believed it had found a way of firing Silver. They also hired private detectives to investigate. The main reason was Silver’s statements about the riot at UM, when a mob of segregationists erupted in violence, killing two people, Meredith enrolled. Silver was also required to explain his actions on the night of riot and provide a list of “endeavors” in recruiting new students, faculty members, and doctoral candidates. The charges seemed to be destined to proceed, but the board dropped them a few months later, in 1964, when Silver was allowed to take a leave of absenteeism to teach at University of Notre Dame. Other faculty members at Mississippi universities weren’t so lucky. Paul and Bessie Taylor were fired by Alcorn State University’s president that year for their contumacious behavior. They believed they were being targeted because they belonged to the American Association of University Professors. Joy Ann Williamson–Lott, historian, wrote that advocacy group in her book “Jim Crow Campus.” However, the AAUP complained and the Taylors never received their jobs back. The board backed the president. Wiliamson-Lott stated that the board was concerned enough about the reputation and status of the state’s flagship public institution white to make it acceptable to accreditation boards. However, this concern didn’t extend to Black college faculty. Many faculty are reminded of a recent firing at UM by the new policies. Inside Higher Ed reported that in late 2020 Garrett Felber was abruptly fired by the university. He had not communicated with his chair well enough. According to Noel Wilkin, the university’s decision not to renew Felber’s contract was based upon “multiple instances when Dr. Felber refused talk” with his chair. Felber, who settled down with the university last summer, said he never refused talks with his chair. He claims he was fired for criticizing university administrative decisions, and for organising for the abolition of prisons. Felber pointed out that his chair had praised him for his research and his service to campus just a few months prior to his firing. Traditional tenure is awarded on the basis of three criteria: Teaching, research, and service to university. These standards are often elaborated in handbooks, which universities develop with input from faculty. A handbook could define what “service” a faculty member is to the university by defining it as participation in the faculty senator or advising students. While some Mississippi universities include collegiality in their handbooks, they do not consider it a requirement for tenure. University of Southern Mississippi evaluates candidates for tenure based on collegiality, but only within the context of three traditional areas. Jackson State University seems to be the only school that recognizes professional collegiality as a criteria for granting tenure. Jackson State University defines collegiality by listing criteria that faculty must meet in order to be eligible for tenure. These include showing up on time to classes and taking part in university functions such as convocation. Some faculty disagree with these standards. What defines collegiality? What is it? Are you being kind to me? Does it involve me working with other departments? Robert Luckett is a tenured historian and director of Jackson State University’s Margaret Walker Center. “It’s the most vague among all of the areas that you are examined.” “I don’t believe that anyone has taken this seriously as something that affects your actual promotion or tenure,” said Robert Luckett, a tenured history professor and the director of Jackson State University’s Margaret Walker Center. Greg Scholtz is the director of the AAUP’s academic freedom division. It often assists faculty in negotiating language in contracts or handbooks with universities. Scholtz stated that when universities insist on including “collegiality” as a criteria to tenure, the AAUP asks for the factor to be evaluated in the same way USM does: Along with a candidate’s teaching, research, or service and not by itself. FIRE and PEN America, non-profits advocating free speech in higher education sent a joint request to the IHL last week. The board is unlikely to do so, which will mean that universities will have to include these policies in their handbooks for the fall. Professor KB Melear of the University of Mississippi, who specializes in employment law said that it might take a lawsuit to provide better definitions of these criteria for faculty. Although it is unlikely that a faculty member would sue for the “collegiality” criteria, the university will likely win the case. Mary Ann Connell, former general counsel at UM, co-authored a 2010 law review article that found that courts sided with the university almost every time a faculty member claimed that collegiality was being used to discriminate against them. Melear stated that collegiality is viewed more towards your work environment, productivity, and relationships than it has been by the courts. It would probably be very easy to litigate that, and that is what I believe it might be.