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‘Appalling’: UM Provost Decries ‘Hurtful’ Emails About Black Women, Gay Alum

University of Mississippi Provost Noel Wilkin is responding to the American Historical Association's criticism of the university's termination of Dr. Garrett Felber, saying the national pushback is "tied to the stereotypes of our institution’s past.” Photo courtesy University of Mississippi

Days after the Mississippi Free Press first reported on emails involving a University of Mississippi dean that included remarks disparaging to Black women students and a famous gay alum, UM Provost Noel Wilkin denounced the remarks in a YouTube video today.

“Please know that I and the university administration condemn the appalling actions and hurtful, divisive comments described in these articles,” Wilkin said this afternoon. “They are not reflective of who we are as a community, and certainly do not reflect what we expect from members of our university community. They do not represent who we want to be.”

The emails revealed that, even as former Journalism and New Media Dean Will Norton publicly condemned school donor Ed Meek for an offensive Facebook post that included photos of Black women students, he was courting the support of another wealthy donor, Houston businessman Blake Tartt. Emails between Norton and Tartt, a 1984 alumnus, show that Tartt took the photos and sent them to Norton days before Meek posted them.

‘Overtaken by the Wrong Elements’

“I took this picture. It was taken from the steps of The Chop House just after the bars closed Saturday,” Tartt wrote in a Sept. 17, 2018 email, with a photo of a Black woman walking in The Square in downtown Oxford attached. “I went to check on my property. You know Oxford and Ole Miss have real problems when black hookers are working on Jackson Avenue. The African American visitors from other towns were competing for her affection. It made me sick. All may think I am living in the past and not progressive enough. I happen to know what happens when a place is overtaken by the wrong elements.”

“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.

In other emails with Norton, Tartt referred to African American tennis superstar Serena Williams by using an ape emoji, evoking an old racist stereotype.

Norton filmed a video publicly condemning Meek and calling for his name to be removed from the journalism school, which was then the Meek School of Journalism and New Media, on Sept. 21, 2018, after receiving the email from Tartt. Even after that, the dean continued courting Tartt’s support for the school, the emails show.

Former University of Mississippi Journalism School Dean Will Norton, seen here during a video denouncing Ed Meek in September 2018, received a number of emails disparaging to Black women students from Blake Tartt, a wealthy businessman and 1984 alumnus. Screencap courtesy University of Mississippi.

In another set of emails with an acquaintance, Norton discussed the sexuality of one of the school’s most famous alums, former Fox News host Shepard Smith. Norton, who had been in contact with Smith at the time to arrange a visit to the journalism school, wrote that he was concerned for his former student.

“I taught Shep Smith when he was married to a fine young woman,” the dean wrote on Oct. 16, 2019. “He has major challenges. I hope to get to know him better in coming months. I think he is very troubled.”

‘Not the Same Institution We Were’

Provost Wilkin received an email with copies of some of the most incendiary emails in late March after anonymous group Transparent Ole Miss obtained them through a public-records request. Norton resigned as journalism dean the next month, publicly citing concerns about his age and the COVID-19 pandemic while privately offering to step down to avoid embarrassing the school.

“Erica, would it do any good if I just resigned as dean? Would the person then relent?” Norton wrote in an email to UM General Counsel Erica McKinley after Transparent Ole Miss first made its records request in mid-March.

Though a number of UM faculty members, including Wilkin, have known about the emails since at least March, no one at the university spoke out publicly until after the Mississippi Free Press first reported on them earlier this week. This publication’s three-part investigation into the UM emails also marks the first time that a media outlet has reported on Tartt’s identity as the man behind the photos that showed up in Ed Meek’s infamous 2018 Facebook post. At least two people named Tartt as the likely photographer in a UM journalism faculty meeting the day after Meek’s Facebook post on Sept. 20, 2018.

In his video message today, Wilkin said the university is “continuing to make progress to ensure that everyone feels welcome on our campus, and these offensive emails do not represent the university.”

“We have high expectations for how we conduct ourselves and will continue fostering an atmosphere of civility and respect for all. We are not the same institution we were in the past,” Wilkin said.

The journalism school, where Debora Wenger is now the interim dean, put out a short statement on Wednesday, saying it “is focused on achieving a goal of full inclusiveness.” 

“Recent reports have publicized a series of emails and incidents that we recognize caused hurt to students, staff and faculty. Though there is nothing we can do to change the past, our school has been and will continue to be committed to diversity and inclusions—making our programs and university better for all, but especially for our students,” the journalism-school statement reads.

Neither the statement nor Wilkin’s video message offered plans or strategies to deal with issues of systemic racism at the university or a “culture of secrecy” that sources described. 

Sources familiar with discussions at the university, though, told the Mississippi Free Press that officials are aiming to produce a plan for making the campus more “diverse” and “inclusive” by the year’s end.

Neither Norton nor Tartt responded to multiple requests for comment for the three-part investigation, nor has UM responded to requests for interviews. Ed Meek did speak to the Mississippi Free Press, and confirmed that Tartt was one of several people who sent him photos of people partying on The Square after a football game between UM and Alabama in mid-September 2018. Meek said he did not know if Tartt was the person who took the photos he posted, though.

The Mississippi Free Press investigation also highlighted the influence of wealthy alumni who repeatedly threatened to pull funding, angry about efforts at the university to cleanse the school of its Old South past, like the Confederate monument that stood at the center of campus until UM officials relocated it to a Confederate cemetery on campus last month—a move that has also drawn criticism from people who fear renovation plans could turn the area into a “Confederate shrine.”

In his video message today, Wilkin did not mention Tartt, Norton or anyone else in the emails by name. He also did not describe any specific emails, nor this publication’s reporting on comments some of those white alums made. He offered praise for the school’s alumni, and rebuffed the notion that the university has reason to fear that making the university more inclusive could cause the school to lose out on endowments.

“Our donors have helped us make progress,” he said. “To paraphrase one of our faculty colleagues, every time we make strides to become a stronger institution, meaning one that embraces all of our students and alumni, our giving levels go up.”

Tartt Pushed for ‘Changing of the Lyceum’

The emails showed that donors, including Blake Tartt, were pushing for a change of leadership in the Lyceum, which refers to the school’s administration, in the months before then-Chancellor Jeffery Vitter announced his resignation in November 2018. 

Several emails show that Tartt was already speculating to Dean Norton about who the next chancellor would be three months earlier, in August 2018.

Blake Tartt sent Dean Norton an email in August 2018, showing a photo of a card addressed to Provost Wilkin atop a black Kiton box.

On Aug. 29, 2018, Tartt sent the journalism dean a photo of a handwritten note addressed to “Noel,” referring to Provost Noel Wilkin, atop a black box with the word “Kiton” on it. Kiton is a men’s luxury brand that sells ties. Prices for Kiton ties are listed online and typically range from $150 to $300.

“Dear Noel, thanks for your time. You made us feel like were (sic) at the Ole Miss we know and adore,” Tartt wrote in a bubbly writing style that mixed cursive and print. “You are a breath of ‘fresh air.’ I appreciate all you do for Dr. Norton and Ole Miss! Enjoy, BT III.”

Referring to Wilkin in a separate email that day, Tartt wrote to Norton: “We want to take extra good care of him and nothing but positive comments. Who knows maybe they make him Chancellor. He would be excellent.”

Tartt, a 1984 alumnus who attended the school at a time when Confederate flags still flew all around campus and the Band played “Dixie,” shared more about his thoughts on the idea that same day.

“We need to get all of the people close to us. Changing of the LYCEUM is going to happen,” Tartt wrote. “No way they (sic) the current group survives!”

“Blake, Wicker will be a help. So will Dr. Dye,” the Meek School dean wrote back, perhaps referring to Republican U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker, a UM alum with whom Tartt had reached out to that morning to arrange a future lunch meeting, and Ford Dye, a member of the Institutions of Higher Learning Board of Trustees. 

That same body would, nearly a year later, appoint Tartt to the chancellor search committee to look for Vitter’s replacement. IHL selected current Chancellor Glenn Boyce for the job in October 2019.

Read our UM emails investigation starting with Part I here.

Editor’s Note: In the reporting of the UM emails series and follow-up reports, the MFP did not confer with members of either of our boards any donors associated with the University of Mississippi  to avoid conflicts of interest.

Editor’s Note: In the reporting of the UM emails series and follow-up reports, the MFP did not confer with members of either of our boards or any donors associated with the University of Mississippi  to avoid conflicts of interest.

Also see:
From Racist Emails to ‘Witch Hunts’: A UM Emails Timeline

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:

  1. ‘The Fabric Is Torn In Oxford’: UM Officials Decried Racism Publicly, Coddled It Privately
  2. ‘The Ole Miss We Know’: Wealthy Alums Fight To Keep UM’s Past Alive
  3. UM’s ‘Culture Of Secrecy’: Dean Quit As Emails Disparaging To Gay Alum, Black Students Emerged
  4. ‘Appalling’: UM Provost Decries ‘Hurtful’ Emails About Black Women, Gay Alum
  5. Ole Miss’ Coddle Culture: Ole Miss Will Stay ‘Ole Miss’ Without Radical Shift
  6. EDITOR’S NOTE: The Decisions, Process, Motives Behind Ashton Pittman’s Series On UM Emails
  7. Perpetuating Patterns: It’s Time To Build A Better University Of Mississippi
  8. After UM Emails, Dean Plans ‘Anti-Racist’ Training, Donor Changes to ‘Remake Our School’
  9. ‘Ole Miss’ Vs. ‘New Miss’: Black Students, Faculty On How To Reject Racism, Step Forward Together
  10. UM Closely Guards Climate Survey Providing Window Into Social Issues, Sexual Violence
  11. UM Probes Whistleblowers Who Exposed Racist Emails As Ex-Dean Keeps $18,000 Monthly Salary
  12. ‘Our Last Refuge’: UM Faculty ‘Terrified’ As Officials Target Ombuds In Bid To Unmask Whistleblowers
  13. ‘Like He Was Disappeared’: UM Faculty Fear Retaliation After Ombudsman Put On Leave
  14. UM Appoints Acting Ombuds As Weary Faculty See Effort To ‘Stamp Out’ Anti-Racism Voices
  15. UM Retaliating Against Ombudsman for Protecting Visitors’ Privacy, Org Says
  16. UM Accuses Ombudsman of ‘Raising False Alarms’ Over Whistleblower Investigation
  17. A Matter Of Trust: UM Controversy Shows How Ombuds Programs Should, Shouldn’t Function, Expert Argues
  18. UM Pursuing ‘Criminal Investigation’ Into Whistleblowers Who Exposed Racist Emails
  19. Ombuds ‘Exonerated’ As UM Emails Whistleblower Hunt Fails to Identify Sources
  20. Will Norton, Ex-Dean in ‘UM Emails’ Race Saga, Quietly Departs University

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