A celebrated and distinguished history professor was fired by the University of Mississippi over a grant for work that the institution apparently deemed too anti-racist.
Dr. Garrett Felber, a tenure-track assistant professor in the Arch Dalrymple III Department of History, has been fired from Ole Miss by University of Mississippi history department chairman Dr. Noell Wilson, who had previously and publicly praised him.
The firing triggered calls for a boycott of the university by scholars and there are organized calls for Felber, who is white, to be reinstated.
Things seem to come to a head when Felber applied for a grant for his “Study and Struggle” project — a political education project on mass incarceration and immigrant detention.
Felber is known for his anti-racist work such as his book, “Those Who Know Don’t Say: The Nation of Islam, the Black Freedom Movement and the Carceral State.” He co-wrote “The Portable Malcolm X Reader” with the late Manning Marable, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his biography of Malcolm X.
Felber announced on his Twitter feed on Oct. 28 that history department chairman Wilson had rejected a $42,000 grant for the program.
“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,” Felber tweeted.
Felber asked his Twitter audience to support study groups for incarcerated people.
“We’re now in the process of finding a new fiscal sponsor and removing all existing money from the University of Mississippi related to @study__struggle. We’re also looking to expand and deepen our work, so please reach out if you want to support radical study groups in prisons.”
According to Felber, Wilson told him that the project was political rather than historical and “could potentially harm the history department’s ability to procure funding,” Mississippi Free Press reported.
Felber accused the university of caving to powerful, racist donors. He Tweeted, “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.”
Felber wasn’t even in residence when he was fired. He was on leave from UM for the 2020-2021 academic year, doing a one-year fellowship at the W.E.B. Du Bois Research Institute at Harvard University’s Hutchins Center for African and African American Research, Mississippi Free Press reported.
In a Dec 10 letter, Wilson told Felber that his last day as a tenure-track professor at the University of Mississippi will be Dec. 31, 2021.
“I am writing to inform you that I have recommended to the Dean of the College of Liberal Arts that you receive a one-year notice of nonrenewal pursuant to the University of Mississippi’s Termination of Untenured Faculty policy,” Wilson wrote to Felber. “Your employment with the University will end on December 31, 2021, and your employment contract will not be renewed after that date. At the pertinent time, I will notify you of your assigned responsibilities for the fall 2021 academic semester.”
Last summer, Wilson publicly praised Felber and his work.
“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,’” Felber said.
There are demands for Felber to be fully reinstated in his position as a tenure-track assistant professor of history.
Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, an assistant professor in the Department of African-American Studies at Princeton University, is one of the scholars pushing for Felber’s reinstatement. She tweeted, “By the way, this is what ‘cancel culture’ in real life looks like. Conservative professors get chastised and mean tweets, the left get fired.”
Other prominent writers and scholars including Cornel West and Walter Johnson have pledged to boycott involvement with the University of Mississippi until there is a full public accounting of Felber’s firing.
Hundreds of other scholars pledged to do the same in an open letter to University of Mississippi’s chancellor, Glenn Boyce.
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“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.”
Felber got lots of support on Twitter.
“Take your talent to AN HBCU where you will be appreciated. Change agents are not welcomed where status quo is cemented,” one person tweeted.
“It seems like the wrong person at #olemiss got terminated today, #NoellWilson is the one who needs to get fired for wrongful termination ASAP!” another tweeted.