Outspoken Out of a Job?Historians in the News
tags: University of Mississippi, academic freedom, Garrett Felber
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 disagrees. 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.’”
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