An Open Letter to the IHL Opposing Recent Changes to Leadership Selection and Tenure
Board of Trustees of the Institutions for Higher Learning
The people of Mississippi deserve a high quality public education system. The recent changes implemented by the Board of Trustees of the Institutions for Higher Learning in Mississippi violate long-established norms of shared governance and transparency at universities. Additionally, the changes made to the tenure standards are a direct threat to the quality of education we provide because they have been used to silence and threaten Black, female, LGTBQ, disabled, and minority educators.
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Board of Trustees of the Institutions for Higher Learning
From: [Your Name]
Dear Members of the IHL,
As students, alumni, faculty, staff, and other concerned parties, we write to urge you in the strongest possible terms to immediately reverse the changes that the IHL made in the spring of 2022 to the leadership selection process and to tenure at public universities in Mississippi.
As reported nationally (1), on April 21, 2022, the IHL approved without discussion changes it previously discussed in a secret, unannounced, and non-live-streamed meeting in March of 2022. In so doing, the IHL unilaterally decided to change the way university leaders are hired in Mississippi and the reasons for which faculty can be fired. The March 2022 meeting itself may have been illegal in that it likely contravened the Open Meetings Act (MS Code of 1972), which requires, with limited exceptions, that “public business be performed in an open and public manner.” (2)
The first change, to leader selection, violates long-established norms of shared governance and transparency at universities. The changes would allow the IHL to appoint a university leader without consulting the stakeholders of the university, including students, alumni, faculty, and staff, even though that consultation is required by academic standards across the country and the norm at public universities.(3) It also sends a message to community members, including students, alumni, staff, and faculty, that their voices do not count in selecting a university leader, even though they are the ones most impacted by that leader.
Additionally, the IHL has decided to anonymize search committees, preventing outside members from sharing input with or meaningfully collaborating on the search process. The result is a top-down, unilateral imposition of authority on every university member. By stripping the search process of any public accountability or transparency, the IHL also violates its own stated mission of ensuring “accountability” in the IHL System (Policies and Bylaws 102.01). Indeed, the IHL itself was created in 1944 precisely to ensure that accountability and prevent political meddling in university appointments. (4)
The second change, to tenure, would allow a university leader to fire faculty for behavior deemed contumacious, insubordinate, or non-collegial, among other criteria. As PEN America and FIRE, two national organizations, have explained to the IHL in subsequent letters, (5) these criteria cannot be standalone reasons for firing a faculty member, since they are prone to abuse and have a chilling effect on free speech and learning in universities. In 1963, Alcorn State University fired two outspoken professors, Paul and Bessie Taylor, for conduct it deemed “contumacious.” That same year, the IHL tried to fire a University of Mississippi professor, James Silver, who had been active in civil rights, for “contumacious conduct.” (6) Numerous cases across the country illustrate the ways in which these kinds of standards have been used to silence and threaten Black, female, LGTBQ, disabled, and minority educators. (7) No state, and certainly not the one with the highest proportion of Black residents, should be employing a standard that has historically served to marginalize those communities.
Organizations like the American Association of University Professors have also stressed that using these criteria as standalone reasons for dismissal is not compatible with the free exchange of ideas on a campus, which is necessary for learning and growth. Simply put, if the IHL values learning in Mississippi, it needs to respect the rights of educators to openly disagree with others, including university leaders. A failure to respect these rights will not only harm learning; it will prevent Mississippi’s universities from attracting the best students, educators, researchers, and employees from out of state and will reduce productivity, thereby also harming the business and professional communities served by Mississippi’s public universities.
We, the undersigned, represent stakeholders from across the university system in Mississippi, as well as those who sympathize with them. We urge you to reverse the stated changes immediately and to adhere to the norms of shared governance, transparency, and public accountability in learning.
1) See, for example, Mississippi Today’s articles: https://mississippitoday.org/2022/04/21/tenure-ihl-revises-policy/; https://mississippitoday.org/2022/04/27/free-speech-organizations-ask-ihl-to-roll-back-tenure-changes/
3) See, for example, the 1966 Statement on Governance of Colleges and Universities jointly formulated by the American Association of University Professors, the American Council on Education, and the Association of Governing Boards or Universities and Colleges Note to self: wonder if we should include the standards of the IHL itself or SACSOS
5) See: https://pen.org/pen-america-fire-object-to-new-restrictions-of-free-expression-for-mississippi-professors/ ; https://www.documentcloud.org/documents/22023416-fire-and-pen-america-second-letter-to-institutions-of-higher-learning-board-of-trustees-may-18-2022
7) See, for example: https://www.aaup.org/report/collegiality-criterion-faculty-evaluation
https://www.researchgate.net/publication/234767476_Is_Collegiality_Code_for_Hating_Ethnic_Racial_and_Female_Faculty_at_Tenure_Time; Wooten, Courtney Adams and Condis, Megan A. (2018), “Collegiality as a Dirty Word? Implementing Collegiality Policies in Institutions of Higher Education,” Academic Labor: Research and Artistry: Vol. 2 , Article 3, Available at: https://digitalcommons.humboldt.edu/alra/vol2/iss1/3
Join Us for our Zoom Event!
United Campus Workers of Mississippi and the American Association of University Professors are hosting a Zoom presentation on Wednesday, Nov. 16, 4:30-5:30 pm Central, by Brian Leiter, the Karl N. Llewellyn Professor of Jurisprudence and Director of the Center for Law, Philosophy & Human Values at the University of Chicago. He will be talking with us about the importance of academic freedom, tenure, and shared governance on campuses.
Register in advance for this meeting:
After registering, you will receive a confirmation email containing information about joining the meeting.
Speaker Bio: Brian Leiter is Karl N. Llewellyn Professor of Jurisprudence and Director of the Center for Law, Philosophy & Human Values at the University of Chicago. He works on a variety of topics in moral, political and legal philosophy, in both Anglophone and Continental European traditions. Among his writings on academic freedom, this paper is most relevant to the topic of his presentation: https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=3083120