The University of Mississippi’s sidelining of its ombudsman amid an investigation into whistleblowers could have a “chilling effect” on the profession nationwide, the Seattle-based International Ombudsman Association is warning.
UM Chancellor Glenn Boyce placed Ombudsman Paul Caffera on administrative leave on Dec. 1 after the ombudsman resisted officials’ attempts to get him to turn over confidential information about visitors in an effort to root out a group of anti-racist whistleblowers on campus.
“Confidentiality is at the core of an ombuds’ effectiveness, and any effort to undermine it can only be perceived as a direct threat against the ombuds profession and the people served by practitioners like Mr. Caffera,” the International Ombudsman Association (IOA) said on Dec. 22 in a statement attributed to IOA Executive Director Chuck Howard and President Melanie Jagneaux, who is also the ombudsman director for the Baylor College of Medicine. “Having demonstrated a commitment to this core ombuds value, it appears that Mr. Caffera now faces retaliation, which places the University in violation of the Ombuds Office Charter.”
“It is our firm position that the University must avoid any action that poses a threat not only to Mr. Caffera and the Ombuds Office, but to people who now and in the future may require an ombuds to safely and confidently discuss or raise issues without fear of retaliation. Pursuing any action that threatens the confidentiality or integrity of an organization’s ombuds office charter will have a chilling effect on the organization’s community and among ombuds offices everywhere.”
‘Widespread Fear of Retaliation’
On Dec. 18, Chancellor Boyce bypassed the formal hiring process and unilaterally appointed UM law school professor William Berry to serve as acting ombudsman. Caffera, whose contract runs through July, still officially holds the position and continues to receive pay, but Boyce’s actions bar him from performing his on-campus duties. Caffera’s information has already been scrubbed from the UM Office of Ombuds website.
“It’s not clear to me why you need an interim ombuds when you already have an ombuds,” IOA Executive Director Howard told the Mississippi Free Press on Dec. 21. “Now he’s on administrative leave, but he’s still the ombuds. And I understand Mr. Berry has tenure and strong ties to the university, but it’s not clear why an interim is necessary, and even if it were, even if he were terminated, there should be a process by which applicants are sought and evaluated. And to have someone just appointed with such strong ties to the university, I think is not a very good process for the university.”
Several faculty members who have relied on the Office of Ombuds’ services in the past to deal with issues on campus have already decided that they will not seek services from the acting ombuds. Aaron Jones, a faculty member whose name has been changed to protect their identity, said Berry’s appointment makes it a “categorical no” for them.
“They just got rid of a guy who refused to cooperate with them in hunting down these whistleblowers, so I am only left to think that they would not appoint somebody else like that who would refuse to cooperate,” Jones said on Dec. 18. “I don’t want to besmirch Barry. I don’t know anything about him, but everything that has happened behind this makes it very sketchy.”
Antonia Eliason, who has been a member of the law-school faculty since 2013, told the Mississippi Free Press earlier this month that she is also troubled by the appointment, even though she has no criticisms of her colleague and thinks Berry “would be a great ombudsman” for another university.
“Will Berry could be Jimmy f*cking Carter and be the greatest saint that ever existed—this has nothing to do with him,” she said. “In no way am I impugning his ability to neutrally work. But there’s an issue that if somebody has a workplace complaint in the law school, then they’re not going to feel comfortable going with a complaint to the ombudsman if the ombudsman is a tenured faculty member.”
Howard, who said he does not know and is not personally judging Berry, also noted that the new acting ombudsman serves as chair of the Academic Discipline Committee, which he said could represent a “serious conflict.”
“You may say you’re fair and open-minded, and you may be,” but if members of the campus community perceive an ombudsperson as having conflicts, they may not feel safe seeking the Office of Ombuds’ services, he said.
“I think that the independence and impartiality of the position have been compromised by this appointment,” Howard said.
In IOA’s statement on Dec. 22, the organization highlighted this publication’s prior reporting on the climate at the University of Mississippi.
“It is clear from previous reporting that there appears to be widespread fear of retaliation among the faculty. Even if the interim ombuds were to recuse himself in matters in which he might have a conflict of interest, this misses the main point: Faculty members and graduate students will likely be reluctant to even contact him given his other responsibilities, especially since he was appointed while Mr. Caffera is still the ombuds and the investigation into the source of the disclosure of anonymous emails by university officials is still pending,” Howard said.
‘The Ombuds Shall Be Protected From Retaliation’
After an anonymous group obtained and this publication reported on emails that revealed entrenched racist and sexist attitudes in the relationships between donors and UM administrators in the UM Emails series, the university’s Title IX enforcement agency, the Equal Opportunity & Regulatory Compliance office, launched an investigation into the whistleblowers who obtained the emails through public-records requests.
The investigators soon targeted Caffera, whose office is supposed to serve as a safe haven where faculty, staff, and graduate students can raise issues or concerns confidentially without fear of professional or academic reprisal.
“At the most fundamental level, an organizational ombuds is one who assists individuals and groups in managing conflicts and raising concerns in service of a highly effective and healthy organization,” IOA explains on the organization’s website. “Ombudsman” is Swedish for “representative.”
The University of Mississippi’s actions, Howard told the Mississippi Free Press, could jeopardize a core underpinning of the ombuds profession.
“More than anything else, ombuds are advocates for fair process, and I’m not sure this was a fair process—appointing an interim when you already have an ombuds. It seems to me the process should conclude with the investigation and if the decision is made that there still is another need for an ombuds, that would be the time,” he said.
After the EORC first asked Ombudsman Caffera to turn over confidential information, including emails and other communications, in October, he refused, pointing out that the 2015 UM Office of Ombuds charter expressly prohibits him from disclosing information about visitors to his office or providing testimony in such investigations.
The 2015 ombuds charter says “the university shall not tolerate retaliation against individuals for use of the Office of the Ombudsperson” and that “the ombudsperson shall be protected from retaliation as a result of his/her role.”
Neither the university or the EORC has leveled specific charges against Caffera or offered any evidence that he participated in the whistleblowers’ efforts, which some on campus and in the journalism school claimed created a “hostile work environment.”
Caffera, who has said he does not know the identity of the whistleblowers and is not affiliated with them, filed a lawsuit in Lafayette County before the Thanksgiving break, seeking an injunction to bar the university from compelling him to divulge private information. The EORC is investigating the whistleblowers on vague accusations of creating a “hostile work environment.”
‘The Values We Hold Dear’
Before the EORC investigation began, the UM Emails series revealed that Will Norton, the former UM journalism school dean, had kept quiet about the fact that prospective school donor Blake Tartt, a wealthy alum, had told him he shot the controversial September 2018 photos of Black women students in tight clothing that school namesake Ed Meek posted on Facebook.
The students apparently were unaware someone was photographing them as they celebrated on The Square in Downtown Oxford after a Sept. 15, 2018, football game. Meek’s post four days later, on Sept. 19, portrayed them as contributors to a sense of moral decay in the North Mississippi college town.
Meek’s call for fellow Oxonians to “protect the values we hold dear that have made Oxford and Ole Miss known nationally” led to an immediate backlash that prompted him to delete the post and apologize soon after.
But the story had already gone viral by the next morning and made headlines across—and outside—the state. Two days later, Journalism Dean Will Norton spoke with righteous indignation as he condemned Meek for the “reprehensible” remarks and called on him to back a decision to have his name removed from the journalism school; Meek did so and, by the end of the year, his name was gone from the the building.
Neither in his public condemnations of Meek, though, nor in private meetings with school faculty did Norton reveal that he had already been in possession of the photos at the time Meek posted them, that Tartt had shot them, or that the real estate businessman had sent emails with far more disparaging remarks about the women in the photos than Meek’s public post.
“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,” Tartt wrote in an email to Norton on Sept. 17, 2018, that included one of the photos. In other emails to Norton that time, Tartt complained about tennis superstar Serena Williams, whom he referred to using ape emojis.
Even as UM officials heaped condemnation on Meek for his post’s “racial overtones,” and he alone took the fall for the photo and his post, Norton and other UM officials privately continued friendly relations with Tartt, who graduated from UM in 1984, as they courted him for money to fund school projects.
In multiple 2018 and 2019 emails to Norton after Meek’s departure, Tartt complained about changes at the university to make the campus more inclusive and rid it of Confederate symbols and traditions—remarks that the journalism dean did not push back on as he continued to seek his financial support.
Boyce’s Controversial Ascent
In late 2018, then-UM Chancellor Jeffery Vitter resigned under pressure as dozens of wealthy alums and donors flooded the campus development office with angry emails about controversies on campus—including the university’s “treatment” of Ed Meek in condemning him for his Facebook post.
The next year, when Tartt served on the committee to select a new chancellor, Norton remained silent about the 1984 alum’s emails. He was not alone, though; sources told the Mississippi Free Press that, within a day of Meek’s Facebook post, a number of UM administrators became aware of Tartt’s role during a meeting in the Lyceum, the administrative building.
A leaked tape that this publication obtained from a journalism school meeting the day after Meek’s infamous post also revealed that journalism school faculty members discussed Tartt’s role during a discussion about the need to take Meek’s name off the journalism school. In the recording, Norton, who was present, remained silent as others discussed the fact that the wealthy alum had likely been the source of the photos.
August 2018 emails show that, less than a month earlier, and several months before Vitter’s sudden removal, Tartt was already speculating to Norton about who the next chancellor would be, despite the fact that Vitter had not announced plans to retire.
It is not clear why the men seemed to assume that the chancellorship would soon become available, but Tartt expressed his hope for a new administration that would restore UM to the university he remembered in the 1980s.
On Aug. 29, 2018, Tartt sent the journalism dean a photo of a handwritten note addressed to Vice 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. “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.”
“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 IHL Board of Trustees. That same body would, nearly a year later, appoint Tartt to the chancellor search committee.
The man that IHL ultimately chose for UM’s new chancellor, though, was not even among the finalists that the committee recommended. Instead, IHL selected its own former commissioner, Glenn Boyce, as the school’s new leader on Oct. 4, 2019, sparking campus protests. Boyce, who had stepped down from his role as commissioner earlier that year, served as a consultant for the IHL board during the search process.
The initial three-part UM emails series helped shed new light on the school’s 2018 and 2019 controversies, from Meek’s Facebook post to Vitter’s downfall and Boyce’s hiring, which set off a firestorm of its own. But it also angered a number of people within the journalism school and in the administration, setting off what some sources have described as yet another in a long line of “witch hunts.”
‘A Hostile Work Environment’
Journalism faculty members filed a complaint with the EORC in October. They had grown upset after receiving multiple emails from anonymous whistleblowers highlighting the UM Emails stories and raising questions about other issues at the school, including about Norton’s pay and whether he had pushed improper promotions.
Norton resigned as dean in May, expressing hope in emails to other UM officials that doing so would discourage the whistleblowers who had already obtained his emails through a public-records request in March from releasing them to the public. As he stepped down, he agreed to return to the faculty to teach.
The Mississippi Free Press reported last month that, though he has not yet taught any classes since resigning as dean, Norton continued to receive a salary of nearly $20,000 a month after stepping down, with his monthly administrative pay bonus intact.
In one email a whistleblower who goes by the pseudonym “Winston Smith” sent to the Mississippi State Auditor’s office in September, Smith alleged that “countless former administrators have been enriched with ‘additional salary’ well beyond the time they cease serving as administrators.”
The next day, the provost sent a letter to the UM School of Journalism and New Media faculty and staff, noting that faculty members had filed “a hostile work environment allegation against the individuals responsible for the anonymous communications”—such as the anonymous person’s emails raising questions about Norton’s pay.
“It is my understanding that the Office of Equal Opportunity and Regulatory Compliance is conducting an investigation in response to your request,” Wilkin wrote.
Wilkin wrote that he was looking at ways to address their concerns about the whistleblower.
“While the EORC investigation takes place, I am exploring mechanisms to give faculty some relief from this barrage of anonymous allegations in the workplace,” Wilkin wrote in the Oct. 23 letter. “These efforts take time, and we appreciate the faculty’s patience and resolve while we do this work.”
‘It’s a Personnel Investigation’
By then, EORC had already sought an interview with Ombudsman Caffera, who in emails to the investigating agency explained that the ombuds charter forbade him from providing such testimony or turning over evidence based on confidential conversations.
“I have no intention to be at all difficult; however, I am aware that there are people on campus who have had wrongdoing exposed via the intervention of the Ombuds Office,” Caffera wrote in mid-October. “It is not hard to envision someone attempting to neutralize the Ombuds Office’s effectiveness by lodging a baseless complaint against me.”
Caffera and his attorney, Goodloe Lewis, ultimately met with Rowzee over Zoom on Nov. 13.
“OK, so what has happened is, uh, earlier in the semester I, uh, I received some complaints and concerns from, uh, folks in the School of Journalism and they were saying that, that there was a hostile work environment being created on the basis of race and national origin and just in general, and so when they made that complaint, I began an investigation, and it’s a personnel investigation,” Rowzee said, according to a transcript attached to the ombudsman’s lawsuit.
The investigator told Lewis he had spoken to about 30 people over the course of the investigation so far.
“So, there is a belief among some of the folks over there that he may be causing or contributing to this hostile work environment, uh, in the School of Journalism and it has to do with anonymous emails and online trolls,” Rowzee told Caffera’s counsel. “There is also a belief among some over there that, uh, he may be using his public office to pursue a personal grudge for a friend or an intimate.”
The ombudsman’s lawsuit denies those charges, saying “Mr. Caffera has never under any circumstance in his role as University Ombuds used his position to ‘pursue a personal grudge for a friend or intimate.’” Lewis does not identify any alleged “friend or intimate” by name.
‘This Antiracist Program Threatens Donor Money’
The news that Chancellor Boyce was seeking an acting ombudsman came earlier this month on the same day Mississippi Free Press’ Christian Middleton broke the story that the university has terminated Garrett Felber, a tenure-track assistant professor of history who has earned national recognition for his work on racism and the carceral state.
Felber criticized the university’s relationship with powerful, racist donors in October, writing that “the real issue is that (UM) prioritizes racist donors over all else” because “this antiracist program threatens racist donor money.”
He was referring to a $42,000 grant he had successfully applied for on behalf of his department that would have funded “Study and Struggle,” an education project focused on mass incarceration and immigrant detention.
His department rejected the grant, though, and Felber said that Noell Wilson, the history chair, said it would have harmed the department’s ability to procure funding from donors. When the Mississippi Free Press contacted her in October about the grant, she declined to comment, referring questions to the UM communications department.
Felber’s firing set off a firestorm of controversy for the university, with thousands of academic scholars from all over the world signing onto a letter supporting Felber and decrying the university’s decision to terminate him.
‘A Chilling Effect on People Coming Forward’
One day earlier, faculty, staff and graduate students began circulating a letter supporting Caffera and the Office of Ombuds, which 118 have signed onto already. Another 92 people have separately signed onto a change.org petition calling for Caffera’s full reinstatement.
“Mr. Caffera has served the University in an exemplary manner for nearly four years, demonstrating independence, confidentiality, and neutrality and has been a force for helping the University of Mississippi live its Creed. He has gone above and beyond the call of duty by tirelessly responding at all hours of the day, on weekends, and on holidays in order to meet the needs of the University of Mississippi community,” the change.org petition reads.
The petitioners are asking the university to “immediately reinstate Mr. Caffera” to his active role as UM ombudsman, place him on a four-year renewable contract, grant him “the equivalent status of vice chancellor,” ensure “consequences for any UM employee who has violated the retaliation policy” in the ombuds charter and to publicly renounce the actions taken against him.
They also want the university to “commit to the independence and confidentiality of the Ombuds Office” and discontinue “UM’s surveillance of the Ombuds Office’s and Mr. Caffera’s phone logs and email.”
“I just don’t think we can ignore the fact that all of this is taking place in the context of an investigation into identifying who those people are and who disclosed the emails from university officials—the so-called whistleblowers,” Howard said. “And so when you consider that and when you look at the process that was used for the appointment of this interim and the kind of disregard for the principles of impartiality and independence, I think it will have a chilling effect on people coming forward.”
“What I have learned in 30 years of representing ombuds is that people need confidential resources and they rely on that confidentiality in disclosing things. … So I think it will have a chilling effect on his ability to do the job, on people coming forward and on the profession.”
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.
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
- Will Norton, Ex-Dean in ‘UM Emails’ Race Saga, Quietly Departs University