Ole Miss Settles With Professor

Garrett Felber maintains he was let go for his politics and outspokenness but that he’s ready to move on. Concerns linger about the climate for academic freedom on campus.

July 30, 2021
 
Harvard University
Garrett Felber

The University of Mississippi settled for an undisclosed amount with a former professor who said the university effectively fired him for political reasons, both parties said Thursday.

“The university is, and has always been, a political institution,” the professor, Garrett Felber, a prison abolitionist, said in a statement. “The question is not whether our work within the university can ever be political. It is whether our politics within it can ever be just, noble and life-affirming. The answer must be yes.”

Rod Guajardo, university spokesperson, said, “We are pleased to have this matter resolved, and are pleased with the resolution.” He said he wished Felber well “as he pursues his future opportunities.”

Felber, who served as an assistant professor of history at Ole Miss for four years, was officially let go in 2020 for failing to communicate sufficiently with his department chair while on research leave at Harvard University. Specifically, Felber insisted that he and the chair communicate over email instead of Zoom, to facilitate a written record of their exchanges; Felber had previously expressed distrust in his chair, criticizing her on Twitter for allegedly rejecting a $42,000 grant to study mass incarceration and immigrant detention because it was too political a project.

“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,” the chair, Noell Howell Wilson, wrote to Felber in December, notifying him that his contract would not be renewed, a few months after that Twitter post. “I wish you success on your future endeavors.”

Tenure-track professors are cut before the end of their probationary periods with some regularity. But prior to Felber’s nonrenewal -- and before the disagreement over the grant -- Wilson told Felber he was meeting tenure expectations for research and teaching and surpassing them regarding service. Felber and his supporters immediately began to suspect that he’d been let go for his activism more than a failure to communicate: Felber’s allies say he has a record of speaking out about university decisions with which he disagrees, and his work is highly critical of the carceral state. Felber also tweeted, for instance, that the university rejected the grant in question because it “prioritizes racist donors over all else. So it’s not some mythic politics v. history binary, but that this antiracist program threatens racist donor money. And racism is the brand. It’s in the name.”

Some of Felber’s Ole Miss colleagues campaigned for his reinstatement, and a group of outside scholars pledged not to speak on campus until he was rehired. But the university stood by Wilson, the department chair. Noel Wilkin, the provost, told the American Historical Association, which had inquired about Felber’s case, that Wilson “chose to make a very difficult recommendation when she lost confidence that an untenured faculty member would act in good faith and be responsive to her repeated efforts to help him succeed.”

The provost also denied that the personnel action had anything to do with scholarship on race or prisons, arguing that other Ole Miss scholars study similar topics.

Felber, who has accepted a fellowship in American studies at Yale University’s Center for the Study of Race, Indigeneity and Transnational Migration, continues to disagree.

“I was terminated because of my public statements, including legitimate criticisms of the university,” he said in his statement. Yet rather than go to court and seek reinstatement, he said, “I have chosen to move on and continue my work from a position outside this university.”

Rob McDuff, one of Felber’s lawyers, who represented him in negotiations with the university, said that Felber’s termination violated the First Amendment, as “this all went down after his very pointed criticisms of the university. The reasons given for the university’s decision don’t hold up.”

McDuff, of the Mississippi Center for Justice, is representing another Ole Miss professor who’s said he also finds the campus climate for academic freedom wanting. Most recently, the professor, J. T. Thomas, an associate professor of sociology, accused the university of failing to comment or in any way defend him against a state inquiry into his participation in an action for racial justice last year.

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In that case, Mississippi’s state auditor, Shad White, a Republican, announced a formal investigation into Thomas’s participation in the widely observed Scholar Strike. White also wrote to Ole Miss to encourage the university not to pay Thomas for the two days of the strike and to terminate him.

Thomas, who remains at Ole Miss, is now suing White for defamation over comments White made about him and his professional fitness. White has moved for the case to be dismissed.

Asked Thursday about the current environment for scholars in Mississippi, Thomas said, “It sucks. I think your typical faculty member wants to feel that they can go to work and do their job and that they don’t have to worry about somebody from state government, and they don’t have to worry about an appointed official, and they don’t have to worry about private donors interfering in their jobs.”

Thomas’s own research centers on race, racism and inequality. Professors who work on contentious issues, in particular, “can’t do that work safely at the University of Mississippi,” he said.

Guajardo, the university spokesperson, did not respond to questions about Thomas’s case. Regarding Felber, Guajardo said Ole Miss “stands by the process it followed, the ruling of the faculty committee that reviewed this case and the decisions made.”

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