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Scholars pledge not to speak at Ole Miss until it reinstates a colleague

Inside and outside the University of Mississippi’s history department, scholars are protesting the sudden termination of a respected colleague. Hundreds of supporters have already signed a letter promising not to speak at Ole Miss until he’s reinstated.

Garrett Felber, an assistant professor of history in his fourth year at Ole Miss, stands accused of failing to sufficiently communicate with his department chair. The chair, Noell Howell Wilson, informed him via letter this month that she was recommending him for termination and that his last day “will” — not “may” — be in December 2021, suggesting the action is final. But Felber has said he was in communication with his chair throughout the fall term, even as he was on approved research leave at Harvard University’s Hutchins Center for African and African American Research.

Instead of being so unavailable as to merit termination, Felber and many of his supporters wonder if he’s being targeted for his track record of speaking out against university decisions with which he degrees. They also note his research on the carceral state is controversial in some corners.

In any case, some colleagues say that what happened to Felber is part of a bigger pattern of pandering to donors and partisan state politics, and that academics elsewhere should take note of how quickly academic freedom can wither.

The university says it is within its rights and academic norms to terminate Felber.

Wilson referred questions to the university.

Felber, who did not immediately respond to an interview request, wrote to his departmental colleagues this week to tell them that he’d been recommended for termination.

“I gather that Dr. Wilson’s decision to recommend my termination was taken unilaterally, without consulting tenured faculty, or perhaps any other faculty at all,” he wrote. “Whether this is an appropriate exercise of power by a department chair is certainly worthy of department discussion.”

Felber said his termination came as a “shocking development,” as Wilson in April “summarized in my Faculty Activity Report that I had ‘a successful year’ for both teaching and research that fulfilled expectations for tenure and promotion, and ‘a phenomenal year of service for a junior faculty member.’”

As recently as August, Felber noted, “Wilson publicly lauded me as ‘an indefatigable researcher and community builder whose knowledge of the carceral state stems not merely from archival digging, but also from his volunteer engagement with prisons as a teacher’ with ‘a national profile in the field of African-American history.’”

Requests Denied

So what changed? In her termination letter to Felber, Wilson wrote that since late October, “you have refused to speak to me.”

“I asked that you confirm your availability for a call,” she wrote to Felber. “You emailed me the following day but did not say when we could talk. You instead told me ‘that any future conversations about the program and these grants should be done over email.’”

Wilson listed two other dates that she’d reached out to Felber to schedule a Zoom discussion about grants and “departmental expectations for faculty-chair interaction.” He again declined to meet with her that way, she said.

“Your repeated refusal to talk with me makes it impossible for me to maintain a productive working relationship with you or supervise your faculty responsibilities,” Wilson concluded. “I wish you success on your future endeavors.”

To which grants was Wilson referring? At least one that Felber tweeted about in late October, criticizing Wilson: “My chair just *rejected* a $42,000 grant from a major foundation we were awarded to support @study__struggle, a political education project on mass incarceration and immigrant detention, saying it’s a ‘political’ not ‘historical’ project, and could jeopardize department funding.”

“This grant supports things like books for incarcerated participants, commissary for study groups to buy food and stamps to write pen pals, honoraria for our award-winning speakers, web design, and Spanish-translation, ASL teams, and close captioning for greater accessibility,” he explained.

Referring to Wilson, Felber also tweeted, “My chair closed the call by suggesting that I start a nonprofit. I research, I write, I mentor, I teach, I do service. I also create and run programs that serve the communities the university violently subjugates through all its *political* work. White supremacist political work.”

If true, Felber’s thread suggests why he would have preferred to email with the chair about grants going forward, instead of talking over the phone: to get her rationale for rejecting grants on the record.

Indeed, Felber wrote in his recent letter to colleagues that the “stated basis for this termination is my supposed unwillingness to meet with Dr. Wilson in the aftermath of her decision in October to reject a $42,000 grant from the Lannan Foundation that I had secured for an education project on mass incarceration and immigrant detention.” That’s despite the fact that Ole Miss accepted a $57,000 grant for the same kind of work over the summer, he said, as the university’s foundation “even promoted that grant and the work for ‘bolstering UM’s long-term goal to be transformative through outreach.’”

Felber further explained his rationale for wanting to correspond with Wilson via email: “Since Dr. Wilson was clear that the decision to reject the October grant was made on behalf of the entire department, I made repeated requests that a written explanation for the grant rejection be given to all faculty before agreeing to meet with Dr. Wilson about this matter.”

He said he didn’t think that was “unreasonable.” Apparently Wilson did.

Anyhow, Felber said that the “notion that my relationship with Dr. Wilson had reached the point where I was not on speaking terms with her has no basis in fact. As she explains in her letter, I responded to each and every email she sent me.”

They pair emailed about a separate matter as recently as Dec. 7, Felber added.

Noel Wilkin, provost at Ole Miss, defended Wilson in a statement, saying that Wilson “recommended a 12-month notice of non-renewal for Dr. Garrett Felber. She sent her recommendation to Dr. Felber in a letter that he subsequently disclosed to dozens of members of the university community.”

Wilson therein described “multiple instances where Dr. Felber refused to speak to her, and how that refusal made it impossible to maintain a productive working relationship necessary to supervise his faculty responsibilities,” the provost said. “Dr. Wilson’s recommendations for a 12-month notice of non-renewal is consistent with [American Association of University Professors] standards and university policy for untenured faculty.”

‘Blindsided’

Anne Twitty, associate professor of history at Ole Miss and a close colleague of Felber’s, said Wednesday that she was “blindsided” by the termination. Twitty confirmed that Felber’s most recent annual review was “extraordinarily positive,” especially with respect to service, and that the department’s tenured faculty had never been consulted about concerns with Felber’s performance. However the university may rationalize his firing, she said, she’s never seen anything like it in her 10 years on campus.

As for Felber’s comportment, Twitty said that Felber had been hired on as a “change maker” and that his effectiveness in “holding people’s feet to the fire” was welcome — at least until very recently.

“Garrett has been who he has always been — there’s been no change in Garrett’s conduct, so it’s doubly confusing to us that this is happening now. He hasn’t been the subject of conversation over these four years, so why suddenly is this a problem?”

Twitty continued, “What I will say is the last couple years have been incredibly challenging, with a lot of things happening on campus that are deeply disturbing.”

This fall, for instance, the university has stayed mum on the Mississippi state auditor’s months-long investigation of sociologist James Thomas for his participation in the national Scholar Strike and virtual teach-in for racial justice. Thousands of academics joined in the September event, but Republican auditor Shad White zeroed in on Thomas, demanding that he be fired for violating Mississippi’s no-strike law for public employees, and even sending agents to Thomas’s home. White recently demanded that Thomas repay the state nearly $2,000 in lost labor and investigation costs, according to the Clarion Ledger.

Thomas’s lawyer has countered that if the state wants to do some deep accounting, then Thomas has performed many more hours of uncompensated labor during his time on campus. Ole Miss has referred to the case as a personnel matter and declined comment.

Also this year, in a debate in which Twitty was involved, the university proposed erecting new headstones for Confederate soldiers — whose identities and exact burial locations are unclear — in an on-campus cemetery that houses Ole Miss’s newly relocated Confederate monument.

The plan was deemed controversial and academically unsound, and Chancellor Glenn Boyce ultimately said headstones will not be installed.

“I must acknowledge that some aspects of the execution of this project have not been handled as well as I would have liked,” Boyce said in a statement. “I take seriously the concerns expressed by various student and faculty groups pertaining to certain elements of the project and I have met over the last two weeks with faculty members, elected leaders of undergraduate and graduate student groups and the leadership of the Faculty Senate to discuss those concerns directly.”

While Boyce said he took “responsibility” for the incident, he has been and remains a divisive figure on campus. Indeed, Boyce’s name was never formally put forth as a candidate for Ole Miss chancellor, and he’d been consulting on the search for a new one before the Higher Learning Board of Trustees appointed him in 2019. The announcement was met with protests, and many continue to wonder if his previous presidency at Holmes Community College in Goodman, Miss., adequately prepared him for leading a major research institution.

Also this week, Boyce announced that Ole Miss was looking for a new, temporary ombudsperson. He gave little explanation.

The Mississippi Free Press reported that Ole Miss put its permanent ombudsperson, Paul J. Caffera, on administrative leave after he sued to stop the university from compelling him to share confidential information about faculty, staff and graduate students who spoke to him privately about campus climate issues. The university is reportedly interested in some of the information with respect to a lengthy Free Press investigation into how university administrators allegedly tolerated racist comments from donors.

Twitty said members of the department requested an emergency meeting with Wilson but had not heard back as of Wednesday afternoon.

Others affiliated with the campus have spoken out. Kiese Laymon, professor of English and creative writing at Ole Miss, said on Twitter that “Garrett Felber is exactly what we long for in colleagues. His work was rooted in making life less terrifying for some of the most vulnerable people in my state. We ain’t fighting for a Neo-confederate slice of hell. They can have it. Wherever Garrett teaches next is lucky.”

Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, assistant professor of African American studies at Princeton University, said that she’d spoken at Ole Miss this year twice, but she wouldn’t do so again until Felber was reinstated.

Hundreds of other scholars have made the same pledge in an open letter to Boyce.

“Simply put, the stated reasons for Professor Felber’s firing are both arbitrary and nonsensical,” the letter says. “Given the climate of mistrust between the faculty and administration prevailing at the university as well as the documented influence of overtly racist donors in setting the terms under which the university administration operates, it seems only reasonable for Prof. Felber to have requested that any discussion with his chair about the withdrawal of support for his grant be in writing.”

Academic Freedom
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Garrett Felber
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