Sow Political Activist Professors, Reap a Political Firestorm

Garrett Felber is an assistant professor of history at the University of Mississippi who was fired for cause on December 10, 2020. His appointment ends a year from now, but his pending dismissal has stirred up widespread consternation, including a petition signed, at this writing, by 4,725 people. The Chronicle of Higher Education headlined, “His University Celebrated His Success. Then It Fired Him.” Inside Higher Ed hit the same note in “Outspoken Out of a Job?

On the surface, the story is one of a sharp clash between the junior professor and his department chairman, Noell Howell Wilson. Wilson, who wrote the letter terminating Felber’s appointment, cited his refusal to meet with her by phone or Zoom while he was on academic leave. 

This has struck many observers as a pretext and left the door open to speculation about the real reason that the University of Mississippi took this action. Felber’s own account, in a series of tweets posted October 28, is that Professor Wilson refused to allow him to receive a grant:

My chair just *rejected* a $42,000 grant from a major foundation we were awarded to support @study_struggle, a political education project on mass incarceration and immigrant detention, saying it’s a “political” not historical project, and could jeopardize department funding.

Let’s pretend “politics v. history” is a good-faith argument. @study-struggle organizes reading groups around a 4-month curriculum w/talks by scholars such as @macfound winner @klytlehernandez, Harvard professor @lorgia_pena, @CaseyGrants fellow @nickwestes and, Angela Y. Davis.

The thread is too long to quote all of it, but the gravamen is this:

Now that we’ve dispelled with that. The real issue is that @OleMissRebels 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.

It’s not hard to get the general sense of the situation. The University of Mississippi indulged in a little progressive posturing by appointing an activist whose primary concern is ending “mass incarceration.” He generated some good publicity for a while and brought in some grants of the sort that junior history professors seldom generate, but his actions also began to draw critical attention outside the university. Along the way, Felber kicked up some dust at his university. 

According to the Mississippi Free Press, “Felber is known for being vocal about prominent university faculty members and organizations.” Part of what he was “vocal” about was his opinion that the University of Mississippi is a racist institution, supported by racist donors. Perhaps because he was anchored in that view, he bypassed the university’s usual procedures for seeking external grants, thus denying his chairman and other administrators the opportunity, as Jim Zook, the university’s Chief Marketing and Communications Officer, put it, “to align his proposal with the Department of History’s research, teaching and service mission as articulated in its mission statement.”

This may seem a small thing to outsiders, but it is a rather big thing to universities and non-profit administrators generally. Recall that Harvard University’s Professor Charles Lieber, chairman of the Chemistry Department, has been charged with federal crimes for accepting money from China without reporting it to Harvard. Universities have a significant legal and ethical burden to examine, review, and approve the funds that flow to faculty members in the name of research. That burden doesn’t disappear when the faculty member denounces his institution or regards his work as a contribution to some higher cause. 

I suspect the University of Mississippi has mishandled this whole matter by attempting to rid itself of a troublesome, rule-breaking faculty member without taking the trouble to respect due process and without forthrightly addressing the issues at hand. Saying I suspect is not to say I know. And because I don’t know, I will temper my criticism by saying that the university does not appear to have acted in any way that evinces “racism” or craven capitulation to donors. It merely found itself with a faculty member who flouts the rules and works hard to demean the reputation of the university.

Felber is not alone or especially unusual in that respect. Radical posturing and activism leveraged against the host institution is a niche specialization that attracts aspirants on almost every campus these days. It is a career path for some, and will surely land Felber a fine position at another university soon. He has already drawn the support of bona fide academic celebrities such as Ibram X. Kendi, and his Ole’ Miss martyrdom will serve a valued credential in years to come. 

That said, I would wish the author of Those Who Know Don’t Say: The Nation of Islam, the Black Freedom Movement and the Carceral State had received gentler treatment at his home university. They need only have waited a year or two before he would have decamped on his own for greener pastures. As it is, they have handed the radical Left a stick with which to beat those who hope to uphold the academic integrity of the university and its history program. And shame on the university for having appointed Felber in the first place, as it ought to have been clear that he is far more interested in political activism than in teaching history. It is child’s play to someone like him to conflate the two, and for far too long the university accommodated his game. 

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