‘Utterly baffling, without merit:’ University of Mississippi fires anti-racist professor

On Dec. 10, Dr. Noell Wilson abruptly recommended to the Dean of the College of Liberal Arts Lee M. Cohen, that history professor Dr. Garrett Felber, “receive a one-year notice of nonrenewal pursuant to the University of Mississippi’s Termination of Untenured Faculty policy.” Wilson, Chair of the History Department at UM, did not discuss the termination with any other faculty members. 

The termination shocked the department’s faculty, graduate students —some of whom worked very closely with Felber — and the university.  The unprecedented action is the most recent example of the university’s suppression of progressive professors and challenges to UM’s authority and racist donors.

Felber is a key organizer in Northern Mississippi against the prison system and helps gather material assistance for those incarcerated in Mississippi’s prisons. During his four years at UM, he received praise from faculty, academia, and the community for his effort against mass incarceration and for his academic work. There was no reason to reckon that his job was in jeopardy.

Felber’s academic work analyzes the carceral state in the United States, and he also studies African-American history. Outside of academic work, Dr. Felber also plays an integral role in the Study and Struggle, which organizes “against incarceration and criminalization in Mississippi thru political education + community building.” Study and Struggle organizes alongside the Immigrant Alliance for Justice and Equity of MS, the RECH Foundation, and MS Prison Reform Coalition. He also led the Making and Unmaking Mass Incarceration conference and is the Project Director of the Parchman Oral History Project. 

‘Lack of effective communication?

Before his termination, UM accepted a $57,000 grant in August from the Lannan Foundation for “an education project on mass incarceration and immigrant detention.” The UM Foundation promoted the grant. However, in October, Wilson rejected a grant from the same foundation worth $42,000.  Felber asked Dr. Wilson for an explanation since she said the faculty as a whole declined the grant. The explanation never came as Wilson suggested the two speak on Zoom or phone and instead of in writing. The justification for firing Felber due to a lack of effective communication is baseless. Per Felber, “The idea, moreover, that one should be recommended for termination simply because a department chair has been unable to schedule a phone call or video conference with a faculty member on approved research leave during a roughly two-week period is deeply troubling.”

Felber’s work with Study and Struggle, which raised money for incarcerated persons, in addition to involvement in other programs against the carceral state, troubled wealthy donors as he stated, “The real issue is that [UM] 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.”

‘Deep sadness as well as anger

Within roughly 24 hours after Felber was fired, a letter circulated on social media. Over 4,000 academics and non-academics pledged “to refuse all invitations to speak at, conduct professional service for, or otherwise be associated with the University of Mississippi,” pending the reinstatement of Felber. 

Megan Marks put it succinctly: “It is so upsetting that students that directly benefitted from Felber’s teaching and activism are now stuck at an institution that clearly cares very little about a well-rounded and social justice education. Graduate students, especially students of color that continue to be in the minority in our program, that interacted with Dr. Felber have expressed deep sadness as well as anger that our department has let go one of the most important scholars and activists we currently have.” 

As recently as Dec. 18, Dr. Wilson met with the history department faculty regarding the decision to fire Felber. According to history professor Dr. Anne Twitty: “My position is that the decision to fire Dr. Felber was unwarranted and unprecedented, and has done enormous damage to the department’s morale and reputation, and engulfed all of us in an enormous morass. All of us, unfortunately, were completely blindsided by this news, and we are all struggling to process and make sense of it. Right now, even after several days, and a faculty meeting, Dr. Felber’s termination still seems utterly baffling and without merit.” The higher-ups at UM are sticking to their decision to suppress any activism that threatens its monied racist donors to maintain the status quo.

The termination of  Felber coincides with other disturbing events at UM. In August 2020, the Mississippi Free Press published a series of articles that demonstrated the continued willingness of faculty and administration to turn a blind eye to blatant racism from donors to UM. It also comes on the heels of other attacks on academic freedom and anti-racist political expression at the university.

In September, UM sociologist Dr. James M. Thomas participated in the #scholarstrike for two days in protest of racism and police brutality. Mississippi State Auditor Shad White, a self-proclaimed, “Husband. Father. Conservative. Above all, Christian trying to live His will,” prosecuted Thomas in chancery court and recently charged that Thomas owes the state almost $2,000, according to The Clarion-Ledger

About the same time that Felber was fired, the University also placed Ombudsman Paul J. Caffera on administrative leave on Dec. 16. UM had attempted to force Caffera to share the information of whistleblowers, which is legally confidential and highly sensitive information. These whistleblowers had highlighted as the MFP reported, “issues of racism and sexism in the school’s relationships with wealthy donors.” As a result, Caffera sued UM and then the university imposed forced leave on him. The Office of the Ombuds is one place on UM’s campus where those who have suffered racist, sexist, and misogynist remarks and actions can report their abusers.

Whilst these immediate events prove that UM continues to smear and suppress challenges to its reputation and the status quo, this represents a larger trend at UM. Former UM history professor Dr. Jessie Wilkerson tweeted: “Today [12/17] I’m thinking about the Black women faculty who, although not fired, were forced out of Univ of MS nonetheless. Two left the year or so before I arrived, one the year after I got there. All were vocal about racism, misogyny, violence, harassment, & toxic culture they faced.” 

Understanding these transgressions as a whole demonstrates the University’s preference for racist white conservative donor money over academic integrity and academic freedom that might upset the exposed donors. The monied class associated with the university controls the administration while typically remaining somewhat behind-the-scenes. If they feel threatened by academic work or any change to UM, such as dropping the racist nickname “Ole Miss,” they simply phone the university and state they are pulling their donations.

All progressive and revolutionary people should stand in solidarity with Felber, Caffera and Thomas, as well as the affected students, staff and other faculty in Oxford as it is clear that UM caters to racist monied donors. 

Felber asks supporters to donate to Study and Struggle. Funds raised go to supporting those currently incarcerated in Mississippi prisons. Supporters can also sign the letter on behalf of Felber. The Mississippi United Campus Workers’ statement can be found here

Liberation graphic: Left: University of Mississippi, Right: Garrett Felber

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