(New York, NY) — PEN America today said the reported dismissal of a tenure-track faculty member at the University of Mississippi raised serious questions about academic freedom. The scholar, Garrett Felber, had previously criticized his department chair for rejecting funds to support his work on mass incarceration and immigrant detention, and had critiqued the university’s fundraising practices and the appointment of its new chancellor.

“This summary dismissal appears an extreme reaction to the facts at hand, raising serious questions and concerns about academic freedom at the University of Mississippi,” said Jonathan Friedman, director of PEN America’s campus free speech program. “When discipline of this nature comes in the wake of someone expressing contrary views or criticism of a university, there is a duty to make absolutely sure—and publicly demonstrate—that the proffered motivations are not just a proxy for retaliation against speech.”

Felber had been widely celebrated for his work and praised by the very department chair who issued his termination notice. In that letter, the department chair, Professor Noell Wilson, implied that Felber was being dismissed because he had refused to meet with her virtually in the past two months to discuss his rejected grant, which he requested they communicate about only in writing. Felber is in the midst of a year of research leave, and his dismissal has led to protests among other faculty in the department and scholars across the country.

“That Felber was so celebrated by the university and praised by the chair not long ago creates an added burden to show that the grounds for disciplinary action were solid, and raises fair scrutiny of how this decision was reached,” said PEN America’s Friedman. “For if the substantive infraction here was a failure to have a meeting over Zoom, it seems like a formal warning, or escalating the matter to a dean above the department chair, could have been pursued prior to an abrupt notice that Felber’s contract will not be renewed.”

“This case also involves the dismissal of a scholar engaging in high profile work to combat racial injustice by an institution with a fraught history of racism, elements of which linger to this day,” Friedman continued. “In that context, questions about the university’s motives seem almost inevitable, and the onus is on the administration to persuasively rebut the notion that retaliatory motives were at work, and to explain what steps were taken to try to avoid this extreme outcome. In the absence of such an explanation, the case sets a very worrying precedent for how tenure track faculty at the university, and at other public institutions across the country, could be summarily dismissed despite strong scholarly records and accomplishments.”