December 21, 2020

Chancellor Glenn Boyce
University of Mississippi

Professor Noell Wilson
Chair, Department of History

Dear Chancellor Boyce and Chair Wilson:

The Executive Committee of the American Studies Association is distressed and outraged over the circumstances of Dr. Garrett Felber’s effective firing from the History Department at the University of Mississippi.  This letter intends to endorse and magnify the concerns raised by a widely circulated public statement that has already been signed by well over 5,000 colleagues as of this writing.

Dr. Felber is a visible, productive, and widely respected member of the ASA.  As the leadership of one of the largest interdisciplinary academic organizations in the world, we will not consent to his subjection to an institutional process that bears every appearance of political and professional retaliation, as well as suppression of academic freedom. 

We will not reiterate Dr. Felber’s significant academic and professional achievements here, other than to remind you that as an Assistant Professor, he has already published an award nominated book, Those Who Know Don’t Say: The Nation of Islam, The Black Freedom Movement, and the Carceral State (University of North Carolina Press, 2020).  Prof. Felber is a highly active member of the ASA community as a scholar, teacher, and advocate in the fields of prison abolition and carceral studies, and his 2020-2021 Hutchins Center Fellowship at Harvard University evidences his rising stature in the academy.

As the co-founder of the nationally recognized project Study & Struggle, Dr. Felber has created a publicly visible educational project that brings sophistication and rigor to pedagogies addressing the racial, gender, and class dimensions of criminalization, incarceration, and migrant detention.  The ASA leadership honors the fact that Dr. Felber successfully obtained a significant grant to support this vital project.  It is alarming that university administrators did not allow him to accept this grant, and we join thousands of our colleagues in interpreting the University of Mississippi’s effective firing of Dr. Felber as an institutionalized violation of his academic freedom and retaliatory punishment for his demonstrated scholarly, public, and pedagogical work supporting anti-racist movements and ethical principles. 

Professor Felber’s history of principled, reasoned critique of the University’s embedded systemic racism as well as his ethical analysis of the institutionalized relationships between the University administration and powerful “Ole Miss” benefactors/donors demonstrate the kind of intellectual courage that the ASA cherishes and cultivates. The University should embrace and engage such criticism rather than attempt to undermine and expel its messenger.

The ASA Executive Committee echoes the specific concerns outlined in the previously mentioned public letter, which states:

In her letter of December 10, History Department Chair Wilson implied, although she did not directly state, that Professor Felber was being fired because he refused to meet with her in-person (on-line) on three separate occasions, and instead demanded that she communicate with him in writing. There is no evidence provided in the letter that Professor Felber failed to properly fulfill the responsibilities of his position, to teach his classes and conduct his research.  Indeed, Professor Felber was on leave as a 2020-2021 Fellow at Harvard University’s Hutchins Center when Professor Wilson was insisting on meeting with him over Zoom.

According to Professor Felber, the precipitating cause of his conflict with Professor Wilson was her refusal to allow him to accept a grant he had received to fund a prison education program based at the university (cf. Twitter thread).  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 Professor Felber to have requested that any discussion with his Chair about the withdrawal of support for his grant be in writing.

The ASA Executive Committee rejects the University administration’s public justification for Dr. Felber’s effective firing, which partially rests on the spurious notion that his department chair was not able to adequately “supervise” his work while he was on leave from the University due to his fellowship appointment at Harvard University.  We are similarly appalled at the rationale provided by Chief Marketing and Communications Officer Jim Zook that Dr. Felber “did not follow the appropriate process for seeking external funding” by not adequately including the University’s development office in his effort to build a project that aims to provide educational opportunities for Mississippi’s overwhelmingly Black and poor incarcerated population.

The ASA Executive Committee follows the lead of over 5,000 colleagues from around the world in demanding a full and transparent account of the circumstances resulting in Professor Felber’s effective firing.  We repeat those demands here:

  1. A full and transparent account of the university administration and development office’s response to Felber’s decision to move the Making and Unmaking of Mass Incarceration conference from the Overby Center for Southern Journalism and Politics on the grounds that the center’s titular donor was a member of the board of Core Civic, a private prison company.
  2. A full and transparent account of the university administration and development office’s response to Felber’s effort to house the Study and Struggle prison education grant in the History Department, including the substance of the “consultation [among] the relevant campus offices” mentioned by university spokesperson Jim Zook.
  3. A full and transparent account of the consultation between the university administration, the development office, the Dean of the College of Liberal Arts, and the Chair of the History Department leading up to the firing of Professor Felber.
  4. Professor Felber’s immediate reinstatement as Assistant Professor of History be assured.

In addition to supporting these demands, the ASA Executive Committee endorses the call to refuse invitations to speak at, conduct professional service for, or otherwise be associated with the University of Mississippi (outside the terms of full-time employment) until this egregious assault on academic freedom is reversed.

Yours truly,
American Studies Association Executive Committee
Dylan Rodriguez, ASA President (2020-2021), 2020 Freedom Scholar, Professor, University of California (Riverside)
Cathy Schlund-Vials, ASA President-Elect, Professor, University of Texas (Austin)
Scott Kurashige, ASA Past President, Professor, Texas Christian University
Hōkūlani K. Aikau (Kanaka Ōiwi), Associate Professor, University of Utah
Soyica Colbert, Professor, Georgetown University
Marisol LeBrón, Assistant Professor of Mexican American and Latina/o Studies, University of Texas at Austin
Amber Jamilla Musser, Professor of American Studies, George Washington University
Nitasha Tamar Sharma, Associate Professor, Northwestern University

Posted for ASA Office in Press Releases
Post date: December 22, 2020

Community announcements and events are services that are offered by the ASA to support the organizing efforts of critical constituency groups. They do not reflect the decisions or actions of the association’s governance bodies, the National Council or Executive Committee. Questions should be directed to the committee, caucus, or chapter that has authored and posted this notice.