The Volokh Conspiracy
Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent
FIRE sent a letter to the University of Mississippi today calling for "a full and transparent account" of why the university decided not to renew the contract of assistant history professor Garrett Felber and asking the institution to reconsider its decision.
Felber, a public critic of Ole Miss' record on racial equity issues, has taught at Ole Miss for four years…. The administration's notice letter cites Felber's reluctance to have a real-time conversation with his supervisor. But, as FIRE's Individual Rights Defense Program Director Adam Steinbaugh notes in our letter, Felber was being called to have that conversation to discuss his exercise of his First Amendment rights:
Felber's nonrenewal arose in the context of his public criticism. Indeed, his supervisor cited that public criticism as a basis for seeking to have a meeting with him. Accordingly, the University's nonrenewal decision necessarily arises from his protected expression[.]
Second, the recommendation of nonrenewal, initiated by a supervisor publicly criticized by Felber, stands in stark contrast to her public praise of Felber less than four months earlier. As one federal appellate court has observed, "conflict is not unknown in the university setting given the … academic freedom" enjoyed by faculty. As Felber's alleged misconduct amounts to little more than insisting that discussion on a contentious issue be conducted in writing, the excessive penalty imposed for this conflict, coupled with the supervisor's reference to the public criticism, strongly suggests that the termination is motivated by Felber's criticism, not his performance.
… If the letter Felber received is the sum total of Ole Miss' rationale for his nonrenewal, it looks like retaliation for his criticism in violation of the First Amendment and should be reversed.
How We Got Here
Felber's friction with the administration is related to his research and area of expertise, as listed in his official bio: "[T]wentieth-century African American social movements, Black radicalism, and the carceral state." Felber is also the organizer of the Study and Struggle program, which seeks to educate community members and the public about "the interrelationship between prison abolition and immigrant detention."
In October, Felber tweeted that his chair had rejected a $42,000 grant to the Study and Struggle program, arguing that a "political" program could jeopardize department funding. As Felber noted, that decision came two days after the University had publicized a $57,000 grant to the same program.
In the Twitter thread, Felber wrote that UM "prioritizes racist donors over all else … this antiracist program threatens racist donor money. And racism is the brand. It's in the name." He also echoed a Study and Struggle co-worker, agreeing that UM is "an arm of the state. It creates knowledge to legitimize state violence, it polices, it gentrifies, it discriminates, it silences, and it obstructs antiracism, anticapitalism, and abolition."
Evidently, the relationship between Felber and his administration did not improve thereafter….
There's a good deal more at the FIRE site; does seem very suspicious, and I'm glad FIRE is on the case. Thanks to Lior Silberman for the pointer.