H. Wilbert Norton, the former University of Mississippi School of Journalism and New Media dean whose emails with a wealthy donor were a central part of this publication’s 2020 “UM Emails” exposé, is no longer an employee at UM.
The series revealed how some university officials had repeatedly catered to certain wealthy donors’ sexist and racist views in order to obtain financial gifts for the university. Norton stepped down last spring after a whistleblower group made a public-records request to obtain the emails, but had said at the time that he would return to the faculty to teach.
“Will Norton has retired from the university,” the provost, Noel Wilkin, said in an email in response to a Mississippi Free Press query today. He did not offer an explanation for the former dean’s departure nor respond to a request to return a call to discuss the matter. Since last year, University of Mississippi officials have declined interviews related to the UM emails situation.
The Mississippi Free Press inquired about his status after he disappeared from the school’s faculty directory sometime this month. Debora Wenger, the interim dean for the journalism school, also confirmed Norton’s departure, but likewise did not respond to a request for a call back.
“You are correct that Dr. Norton retired earlier this month. The specifics related to any individual’s retirement are confidential,” Wenger, who took over from Norton in May 2020, said in an email this evening.
Norton continued to receive a sizable salary even after stepping down as dean in May 2020. Payroll documents the Mississippi Free Press obtained last year showed that he earned $18,739 in June 2020 as a “Professor of Journalism and New Media,” though he did not teach last summer nor in the fall, when he was on sabbatical. Norton did teach two introductory classes in the spring 2021 semester in addition to a small graduate class.
‘Would It Do Any Good If I Just Resigned?’
The UM emails saga began last year when Transparent Ole Miss, a group of anonymous whistleblowers, emailed Norton last year seeking public records, including copies of his work emails that mentioned a range of keywords, including “Blake Tartt,” referring to a Houston businessman and 1984 alum.
Subsequent public-records requests revealed that Norton expressed concern about the information the group was asking for in an email to Erica McKinley, who was the university’s general counsel until this February.
“Erica, would it do any good if I just resigned as dean? Would the person then relent? We have so much we are trying to do right now,” Norton wrote McKinley on March 17, 2020. She vowed to handle the request even as university officials were scrambling to handle changes amid the unraveling COVID-19 pandemic.
By March 29, 2020, copies of emails between Norton and Tartt from the fall of 2018 began circulating among members of the faculty and administration, including one in which Tartt sent Norton a photo he said he took on The Square in Oxford showing Black women enjoying a night out in town.
“You know Oxford and Ole Miss have real problems when black hookers are working on Jackson avenue. The African American visitors were competing for her affection,” read one September 2018 email that Tartt sent to Dean Norton. “It made me sick. … I happen to know what happens when a place is overtaken by the wrong elements.”
As he did in numerous other instances, Norton responded without criticizing the wealthy businessman who he hoped would give a sizable donation to the school.
“Blake, I have been really disappointed for a long time with the way this culture is going,” the journalism dean wrote back the next morning.
Norton Had Planned To Continue Teaching
Days after Norton received Tartt’s email with the photos of Black women in a tight-fitting clothes on The Square, the journalism school’s founding donor and namesake, Ed Meek, used one of Tartt’s photos in a Facebook post calling on others to “protect the values we hold dear that have made Oxford and Ole Miss known nationally.”
Then-UM Chancellor Jeffrey Vitter put out a statement that day, condemning Meek’s post for having an “unjustified racial overtone”—remarks Dean Norton would echo the next day, decrying Meek for his “reprehensible” words and calling for his name to be removed from the journalism school. But Norton did not reveal that he had already received the photo with similar remarks in emails from Tartt.
The school erased Meek’s name from its building soon after, but Norton did not speak up about Tartt’s role despite having received the emails. After Vitter stepped down later that fall, Tartt served on the committee that helped select the new UM chancellor, Glenn Boyce. Emails show the journalism dean and other UM officials continued courting Tartt’s financial support for more than a year after the Meek incident.
After the whistleblowers obtained Norton’s emails, a number of people, including the University Ombuds Paul Caffera and then-UM Vice Chancellor for Diversity and Inclusion Katrina Caldwell, contacted Provost Wilkin with copies of some of the most offensive ones. In one email, Norton appeared to refer to Shepard Smith, a famous gay former student who has hosted cable news shows at Fox News and CNBC, as “very troubled” after mentioning that he was once “married to a fine young woman.”
Several weeks later, on April 23, 2020, Norton told faculty during an 11 a.m. Zoom meeting that he had an afternoon meeting with the provost. Just before 5 p.m., Wilkin emailed the journalism school faculty and students saying Norton had “decide(d) to return to the faculty.” Three hours later, Debora Wenger, who was then an assistant journalism school dean, sent an email to faculty quoting Norton.
“My strengths are in raising funds, recruiting, and finding support for projects in the school,” Norton said in the statement to fellow faculty. “Unfortunately, this is not an environment in which these strengths are effective, and I believe new leadership will bring skills and energy needed to make and implement future decisions.”
In a faculty meeting the next week, though, Norton said he “probably should have retired from being dean four years ago” and that he would “be very concerned about being in a classroom” amid the pandemic.
“I’m not sure that there will be much more than shelter-in-place for me for the rest of my life,” he said, minutes before saying he was excited over plans to return to teaching “to see what students are truly like in the classroom now compared to when I was teaching full time.”
Norton formally stepped down on May 11 and Wilkin appointed Wenger as the school’s interim dean.
‘Culture of Fear’
Sources told the Mississippi Free Press that, aside from Norton, others in the journalism faculty and members of the administration were at least somewhat aware of Tartt’s involvement in the photos that made their way to Meek’s Facebook.
The Mississippi Free Press obtained a recording of a Sept. 20, 2018, journalism faculty meeting the day after Meek’s viral post. In it, members can be heard discussing the source of the photos—and the likelihood that Tartt was the source.
This publication was not the first to report on parts of that meeting, though. Then-Mississippi Today reporter (now editor-in-chief) Adam Ganucheau first reported some of the aforementioned remarks from the Sept. 20, 2018, Meek School of Journalism and New Media faculty meeting, which occurred the day after Ed Meek’s infamous Facebook post. Ganucheau had obtained a copy of the recording of the meeting from an anonymous source.
The Mississippi Today report did not mention that faculty members had named Tartt as the probable source of the images that Meek reposted; Ganucheau told the Mississippi Free Press last year that he had tried to confirm Tartt as the source of the photos but had not been able to do so. Norton was on the board of directors of that publication until last summer.
When the Mississippi Free Press was working on the initial series of stories in the spring and summer, multiple sources who asked for their names to be kept private described a “culture of fear.” They claimed that the journalism school had launched a “witch hunt” to root out whistleblowers in the past. Some of the emails the Mississippi Free Press obtained showed that Norton and others in the school had discussed an effort to identify the leaker or leakers.
After the Mississippi Free Press broke the news about the trove of emails in August 2020, the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication rescinded an award it had granted Norton in 2019, citing the MFP investigation and Norton’s “highly questionable” emails that do “not align with the AEJMC’s Code of Ethics” and the organization’s beliefs in “distributive justice in our relationships with peers, students, and other stakeholders.”
Wenger and Wilkin both put out statements condemning the content of the emails, though without mentioning Norton by name, and vowing to make changes to be more inclusive. Neither would agree to an interview with this publication, and no other Mississippi media, including UM’s campus publications, have reported anything related to the Tartt-Norton email controversy to date. This publication has obtained emails showing that other news outlets in the state received copies of the Norton-Tartt emails starting in April 2020.
Whistleblowers Cited Concerns About Pay, Promotions
The whistleblower group that obtained the email, Transparent Ole Miss, passed the emails along to another anonymous whistleblower group, Ole Miss Information. Both groups shared copies of the emails with this publication. After the initial three-part UM Emails exposé published, Ole Miss Information shared copies of the stories with faculty members but also continued to raise concerns about other issues within the journalism school.
This publication also obtained a September 2020 budget projection showing that, in addition to his base monthly salary, Norton continued to receive the “additional administrative salary” he had received as a dean even after formally stepping down from that position and returning to the faculty last May.
One Ole Miss Information whistleblower emailed IHL Commissioner Van Gillespie and the Office of the Mississippi State Auditor on Sept. 21, 2020, raising concerns about the fact that Norton and other former administrators had continued to receive the administrative supplements even after returning to faculty positions.
“Despite being chased from his job in disgrace, when (UM Provost and Executive Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs Noel Wilkin) calculated Dr. Norton’s salary as a nonadministrator faculty member, he allowed Dr. Norton to retain his ‘additional salary’ adjusted from 12 months to 9 months,” the whistleblower, whose pseudonym is Winston Smith, wrote. “This has resulted in Dr. Norton being paid more than twice the salary paid to any other 9 month full professor in journalism, over $200,000/year, to NOT perform any teaching duties.”
Smith, whose pseudonym is based on the protagonist of George Orwell’s utopian novel, “1984,” accused Wilkin of “making an improper gift of state taxpayer money to former administrators.”
The whistleblower cited the IHL Board of Trustees Policies & Bylaws Section 402.01 B, which says that “additional salary” for holding an administrative position “shall not be paid to the faculty member when he or she ceases to hold the administrative position.”
“For years, at the direction of the provost’s office, Ole Miss has violated this clear and unambiguous policy language,” Smith alleged in the complaint to IHL. “In the process, countless former administrators have been enriched with ‘additional salary’ well beyond the time they cease serving as administrators.”
The Mississippi Free Press obtained 10 years of IHL meeting minutes through a public-records request and also examined minutes from the months since Norton resigned. None of the minutes lists changes in Norton’s pay or status. There is no record of the IHL granting any special exceptions to its policies to Norton or any other UM faculty member.
Wilkin told the Mississippi Free Press last fall that UM has “a policy about how department chair salaries are calculated when they move from faculty to administrative roles and when they return back to faculty” that “ensures consistency and compliance with IHL Board Policy 402.01 B.” He said the university applies its chair policy to deans as well for the purpose of “consistent decision.”
Hunt For Whistleblowers Targeted Ombuds
In Winston Smith’s September 2020 email to the IHL commissioner and state auditor, the whistleblower also raised questions about whether administrators, including Norton in the journalism department, may have improperly hired professors or some given pre-existing faculty members promotions, including to tenure-track positions for which they did not qualify under IHL guidelines’ defined minimum standards.
Four days later, the University of Mississippi Equal Opportunity & Regulatory Compliance Office, which handles Title IX employment issues, including ones involving race and gender-based misconduct or discrimination, began an investigation into Smith and the other Ole Miss Information whistleblowers. University of Mississippi Police also opened a criminal probe into the whistleblowers based on allegations of “harassment” related to their emails to faculty members.
“Beginning September 25, 2020, EO/RC Interim Director Gene Rowzee met with faculty and staff who alleged they were being harassed and targeted because of race and national origin, and in general, as members of the School of Journalism,” reads part of a report the EORC completed in early 2021. “They alleged the harassment was generally taking the form of pseudonymous emails to faculty and staff and others, social media and website posts, and that current faculty and staff at the University, including the University Ombuds, might be involved.”
The next month, Samir Husni, a journalism professor and the head of the on-campus Magazine Innovation Center, sent an email to Interim Dean Wenger on behalf of faculty members complaining about the whistleblowers.
“What began as legitimate criticisms of both individual behaviors and choices as well as institutional systems, most of which are documented in a three-part Mississippi Free Press series, has turned to attacks … against specific tenured and untenured faculty and unfounded claims that faculty governance is broken,” Husni wrote.
“In attempts to demean and intimidate faculty, the harasser(s) have also used unauthorized audio recordings and statements from meetings in which faculty had an expectation of privacy. … We are particularly concerned that these unidentified individuals have begun to target Black and international faculty.”
Husni’s email did not explain why the group was accusing the whistleblowers of race-based targeting of faculty. He is an immigrant from Lebanon whom Norton hired in the 1980s. Husni previously served as chair of the journalism department in the 1990s and 2000s before its transformation into the School of Journalism and New Media.
In Smith’s email to IHL, the majority of faculty members listed as having potentially received improper promotions were white, though some non-white members were listed, too.
During the course of the investigation, the ombuds, Paul Caffera, sued to prevent investigators from accessing his work emails, citing the 2015 Charter Agreement for the Office of the Ombudsman, which says the ombudsman “shall not testify or provide records to be used in any … investigation” and shall “ensure confidentiality of the visitor’s identity and communications.” The charter also says that the ombudsman “shall be protected from retaliation as a result of his/her role.”
But in December 2020, UM Chancellor Glenn Boyce placed Caffera on administrative leave while the investigations continued even as the ombudsman declared he was not affiliated with the whistleblowers.
Investigators Found No Evidence Against Caffera
University faculty members outside the journalism school who had confided anonymously to the ombudsman about employment issues in their own departments told the Mississippi Free Press at the time that they feared that the whistleblower hunt would result in their own identities being exposed and open them up to retaliation.
Caffera remained on administrative leave even after the EORC shared its findings with the administration on Jan. 25. In a five-paragraph report following dozens of interviews, the EORC said it “could not substantiate or disprove the identity of any employee or University-affiliated person engaged in the harassment.”
On March 8, Chancellor Boyce announced that Caffera would “resume his responsibilities as the University Ombuds, effectively immediately.”
In a statement, Caffera’s attorney, Goodloe Lewis, says his client “steadfastly adhered to his ethical obligations” by refusing “to disclose any confidential information” about faculty or staff members who had used his service.
“He did so despite being placed on administrative leave and further being threatened with adverse employment action (not to mention possible criminal action) for refusing to answer questions that sought to invade the confidentiality of the Office of Ombuds,” Lewis says.
The university still has not identified the whistleblowers.
Norton Not Listed On Emeritus Page
Norton has never publicly addressed the controversy over his emails and has not responded to a number of requests for comment since last summer, including one today.
Norton is not listed as an emeritus member of the faculty in either the university’s directory or on the journalism school’s faculty page. Official UM policy explains that “emeritus/emerita status is an honorary title awarded for distinguished service to the university over an extended period of time.”
The policy says that “full-time faculty members” or “administrative personnel” who are “in good standing and not being investigated or considered for disciplinary action” are eligible for emeritus status after 10 consecutive years of service.
In his email this afternoon, Provost Wilkin only said he did not “know the process or plans as to how the school updates their website,” but did not clarify whether or not Norton is an emeritus faculty member.
When longtime journalism faculty member Curtis Wilkie retired in December, the school’s website announced his departure, writing in a glowing post that Wilkie “served as conscience of the campus” and a “mentor to many.” But there is no mention of Norton’s departure on the website, despite the fact that he served the journalism program for decades both as the department’s chair and its dean.
Norton was the chair of the UM journalism department before it was its own school in the 1980s and remained until 1990, when he left for a position as dean at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. He returned in May 2009 to serve as the first dean of the newly established UM School of Journalism and New Media.
Watch: Reporter Ashton Pittman and Editor Donna Ladd discuss the series during the 2021 Ancil Payne Award for Ethics in Journalism ceremony (40:00) and read more about the award here.
Read the full UM Emails reporting series to date:
- ‘The Fabric Is Torn In Oxford’: UM Officials Decried Racism Publicly, Coddled It Privately
- ‘The Ole Miss We Know’: Wealthy Alums Fight To Keep UM’s Past Alive
- UM’s ‘Culture Of Secrecy’: Dean Quit As Emails Disparaging To Gay Alum, Black Students Emerged
- ‘Appalling’: UM Provost Decries ‘Hurtful’ Emails About Black Women, Gay Alum
- Ole Miss’ Coddle Culture: Ole Miss Will Stay ‘Ole Miss’ Without Radical Shift
- EDITOR’S NOTE: The Decisions, Process, Motives Behind Ashton Pittman’s Series On UM Emails
- Perpetuating Patterns: It’s Time To Build A Better University Of Mississippi
- After UM Emails, Dean Plans ‘Anti-Racist’ Training, Donor Changes to ‘Remake Our School’
- ‘Ole Miss’ Vs. ‘New Miss’: Black Students, Faculty On How To Reject Racism, Step Forward Together
- UM Closely Guards Climate Survey Providing Window Into Social Issues, Sexual Violence
- UM Probes Whistleblowers Who Exposed Racist Emails As Ex-Dean Keeps $18,000 Monthly Salary
- ‘Our Last Refuge’: UM Faculty ‘Terrified’ As Officials Target Ombuds In Bid To Unmask Whistleblowers
- ‘Like He Was Disappeared’: UM Faculty Fear Retaliation After Ombudsman Put On Leave
- UM Appoints Acting Ombuds As Weary Faculty See Effort To ‘Stamp Out’ Anti-Racism Voices
- UM Retaliating Against Ombudsman for Protecting Visitors’ Privacy, Org Says
- UM Accuses Ombudsman of ‘Raising False Alarms’ Over Whistleblower Investigation
- A Matter Of Trust: UM Controversy Shows How Ombuds Programs Should, Shouldn’t Function, Expert Argues
- UM Pursuing ‘Criminal Investigation’ Into Whistleblowers Who Exposed Racist Emails
- Ombuds ‘Exonerated’ As UM Emails Whistleblower Hunt Fails to Identify Sources