His University Celebrated His Success. Then It Fired Him

Historians in the News
tags: University of Mississippi, academic freedom, Garrett Felber

A prominent faculty member at the University of Mississippi found himself at the center of a firestorm this week, after news of his unexpected termination spread on social media.

Garrett Felber, an assistant professor in his fourth year at the institution, got a letter from his department chair on December 10, informing him that she had recommended he be terminated. The reason that Noell Howell Wilson gave was that Felber had failed to properly communicate with her and had refused to meet by phone or Zoom, according to a copy of his termination letter obtained by The Chronicle. But to Felber and a growing list of supporters, that rationale rings hollow — and is, they say, unprecedented.

Felber has a history of activism and has been an outspoken critic of the administration at Mississippi, a background that has led supporters to conclude that something deeper motivated the decision. “It would be naïve and ahistorical to think this termination is about emails or a meeting,” Felber told The Chronicle.

A Rejected Grant

The tension between Felber and Wilson began in late October, when Felber tweeted that his chair had rejected a $42,000 grant he’d recently been awarded to support Study and Struggle, a project focused on incarceration in Mississippi. Months earlier, Felber wrote, another grant for the same project had been accepted, and promoted, by the university.

The reason Wilson gave for rejecting the grant, Felber tweeted at the time, was that Study and Struggle is a political project, not a historical one. “The real issue,” he wrote, was that Mississippi “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.” (The university has long grappled with its nickname, “Ole Miss,” which was the term enslaved people used to refer to the wife of their owner.)

Wilson, in her letter informing Felber of his termination, suggested that a breakdown in communication had followed the grant rejection. “You have refused to speak to me,” she wrote, detailing several attempts she’d made to schedule phone and Zoom calls with him. Rather than respond directly to those invitations, she wrote, Felber had insisted that information about grants “should be communicated to me in writing.”

“Respectfully, your effort to dictate or restrict the means by which I communicate with you is untenable,” Wilson told Felber. “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.” That’s why Felber would be receiving a one-year notice that his contract at Mississippi wouldn’t be renewed, she explained. “Your employment with the university will end on December 31, 2021, and your employment contract will not be renewed after that date.”

In a Tuesday email to his colleagues explaining the circumstances that led to his firing, Felber wrote that Wilson had told him that the grant had been rejected on behalf of the entire history department. As such, he wrote, “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. I do not think this was unreasonable.”

Read entire article at Chronicle of Higher Education

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