The University of Mississippi is asking a Lafayette County chancery court to dismiss a lawsuit its ombudsman, Paul J. Caffera, filed in November seeking to bar school officials from obtaining information about visitors to his office amid an investigation into the ombudsman and a group of anti-racism whistleblowers at the school.
Since October, the ombudsman has resisted the UM Equal Opportunity and Regulatory Compliance office’s requests for him to turn over information officials hope will lead to the whistleblowers who played a pivotal role in this publication’s “UM Emails” exposé. Those reports revealed a tangled web in which some UM officials catered to certain wealthy donors’ often sexist and racist expressions in order to procure money for the school.
The EORC informed Caffera on Oct. 13 that he was under investigation for allegations that he “violated the University’s non-discrimination policy by creating a race-based hostile work environment for certain employees on campus” and for “abusing the powers of his ombuds position to pursue a personal grudge for a friend or intimate,” the university’s Dec. 23 motion to dismiss says. The university has not explained the basis for those allegations, including in its new response to Caffera’s lawsuit.
In November, Caffera filed the lawsuit to block UM from forcing him to provide testimony or turn over emails and other private communications as part of the EORC investigation.
In emails to EORC Interim Director Gene Rowzee in October, Caffera cited the 2015 Ombudsman Charter, which his lawyer Goodloe Lewis told the Mississippi Free Press last month “expressly prohibits Mr. Caffera’s disclosure of the identity of persons using the Office of Ombuds, as well as any information they provide, except to prevent imminent harm.”
But the university’s Dec. 23 motion to dismiss casts doubt on whether or not officials consider the 2015 ombudsman charter binding—even though hundreds of UM faculty, staff and graduate students have relied on its promise of confidentiality as they raised issues on campus through the ombuds office since its establishment.
“The Ombuds process is not only informal, it is voluntary. No employee may be compelled to participate,” the motion to dismiss argues, also noting that the “University does not exempt any employee from compliance with Title VII or with the university’s non-discrimination policy and complaint procedure.”
“When investigating a complaint of discrimination, EORC may interview the complainant, the respondent, and witnesses who have potentially relevant information, along with reviewing documents and other evidence,” the Dec. 23 filing says.
Caffera’s objection stems from his office’s duties outlined in the 2015 charter agreement that established it, which says the ombudsperson “shall not testify or provide records to be used in any other dispute resolution process, grievance process, or investigation, even if requested to do so by the visitor.” It also says the ombudsperson “shall be protected from retaliation as a result of his/her role.”
UM: Caffera ‘Creating Non-Existent Concerns’
Last month, faculty members on campus who have relied on the ombuds’ office to confidentially raise employment-related concerns told the Mississippi Free Press, while speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation from superiors, that they feared the university could expose their identities in its efforts to make Caffera turn over information.
Caffera raised those concerns, too, and in one Oct. 13 email to Rowzee, said he was “aware that there are people on campus who have had wrongdoing exposed via the intervention of the Ombuds Office” and that he was concerned someone could be “attempting to neutralize the Ombuds Office’s effectiveness by lodging a baseless complaint against me.”
In the University of Mississippi’s motion to dismiss, though, the institution accused Caffera of “creating non-existent concerns and raising false alarms” as he “asks this Court to disrupt an internal University investigation by immunizing him” and “sealing University records from the investigation.”
But the anonymous faculty members who spoke to the Mississippi Free Press last month also shared some of Caffera’s concerns.
“I think we’re all worried the university is going to get a hold of his communications and that our names will be revealed,” said Aaron Jones, whose name this publication changed to protect the faculty member’s identity.
Another, Ruth Ford, said they worried the EORC investigation was an attempt to undermine the ombuds office and remove Caferra, whose contract expires in July.
“People would be terrified of speaking up because people who speak up get hammered at this university,” Ford said. “There is no place on campus where somebody can go except for the ombuds office to be treated fairly and with respect. Paul Caffera as the ombudsman is the only place women can go and talk about their concerns.”
The Dec. 23 complaint claims that Caffera’s request for court intervention “under the guise of carrying out his employment duties and protecting information provided by other employees” is a cover for “Caffera’s real aim … to protect his own personal employment interests.”
Though Caffera still retains his title, UM Chancellor Glenn Boyce placed him on administrative leave on Dec. 1, precluding him from carrying out his duties as ombudsman. Then, On Dec. 18, the chancellor bypassed the formal hiring process and unilaterally appointed UM law school professor William Berry to serve as acting ombudsman.
‘It Appears That Mr. Caffera Now Faces Retaliation’
On Dec. 22, the Seattle-based International Ombudsman Association sided with Caffera, saying that the university’s decision to sideline him amid an investigation into whistleblowers could have a “chilling effect” on the profession nationwide.
“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 IOA said in a statement attributed to IOA Executive Director Chuck Howard and President Melanie Jagneaux. “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.”
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. On Dec. 18, Aaron Jones told the Mississippi Free Press that Berry’s appointment made 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.”
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.
Last month, faculty, staff and graduate students began circulating a letter supporting Caffera and the Office of Ombuds, which 120 have signed onto; another 96 people have separately signed onto a change.org petition calling for Caffera’s full reinstatement.
‘A Clear Pattern of Abuses of Power’
In a Dec. 22 letter to UM Chancellor Glenn Boyce and Provost Noel Wilkin, the United Campus Workers of Mississippi described “a clear pattern of abuses of power on the part of the administration of the University of Mississippi” and the “targeted harassment of public employees.” The letter cited Caffera’s situation and the termination of UM history professor Garrett Felber, an anti-racism scholar whose firing last month drew condemnation from thousands of academics worldwide.
“The University of Mississippi has for years fostered and tolerated a toxic culture of harassment, abuse, and violence toward its faculty, staff, and students. This mistreatment of members of the university community has come from all levels of management, including some department chairs, deans, and other supervisors, as well as from members of its predominantly white student body,” the letter said.
In October 2018, a group of UM sociology professors published a report titled “Microaggressions at the University of Mississippi.” Without naming the students who had written the diaries, the report described a number of shocking incidents. In one instance, a Black freshman woman said she was walking on campus when a white male student told her to “move, you Black n*gger.”
A white student shared a story of attending a party where drunk male students played a drinking game in which they took turns singing the words, “F*ck you n*ggers,” and had to follow up with a rhyming second line.
In another notable diary entry, a white fraternity student described a conversation about a Black rushee whom his fraternity brother described as “a cool guy that actually went out of his way to shake our hands and introduce himself with a smile.”
“And we can’t accept him to our chapter because mostly all of our Alumni will stop donating money, give us the finger, and never come back for admitting one black guy in the fraternity,” the diary entry, which does not name the allegedly discriminatory fraternity, recounts the fraternity brother saying.
The report was part of the sociologists’ “Race Diary Project,” for which they had collected 1,400 diary entries during the 2014-2015 school year from 621 students who described a number of racist, sexist, Islamophobic, homophobic and otherwise discriminatory incidents on campus.
In an Oct. 3, 2018, email to colleagues that The Daily Mississippian previously reported, UM Chief Marketing and Communications Officer Jim Zook wrote that then-Chancellor Jeffery Vitter was “particularly concerned about the characterization of the university” in the report.
“We are very concerned about the potential impact of this report on the university and its reputation. Chancellor Vitter is particularly concerned about the characterization of the university,” Zook wrote.
Then, last year, before the UM emails whistleblowers emerged, a UM survey on the campus social climate revealed that 60% of university faculty and 55% of staff members had considered leaving the university in the past year, with many describing alleged incidents of corruption or sexual harassment.
The Dec. 22 United Campus Workers of Mississippi letter accused the university of not doing more to “live up to its stated commitments” and fight back against a culture of racism and harassment.
“Senior leadership has long been aware of these abuses, and yet has failed to publicly defend students, faculty, and staff who have been victims,” the United Campus Workers letter said. “The University senior leadership has instead used its investigatory and police powers to dissuade employees from exercising their Constitutional rights of free speech and association, and has punished employees seeking to exercise these rights.”
University officials, the organization claimed, have “attacked, rebuked, shunned, and silenced members of the University community while pandering to donors, alums, parents and others who oppose anti-racism work.”
‘Oxford and Ole Miss Have Real Problems’
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 EORC, which deals with Title IX issues, launched the investigation into the whistleblowers, who obtained the emails through public-records requests, and, at some point, into claims against Caffera.
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.”
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 in a September 2018 email that he shot the controversial photos days earlier 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 him 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 journalism-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 Assent
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 email administrators became aware of Tartt’s role during a meeting in the Lyceum, the administrative building.
This publication also obtained a leaked tape of a journalism-school faculty meeting the day after Meek’s infamous post also revealed that journalism faculty members had 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 the reporting 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.”
UM ‘Entitled’ to ‘Deference,’ Motion Says
Though Caffera says he does not know the identity of the UM emails whistleblowers, his attorney nevertheless argued that, if the university were to access Caffera’s emails, it could reveal the identities of others who have come to his office for reasons unrelated to the whistleblowers.
In the university’s Dec. 23 filing, though, UM attorney J. Cal Mayo Jr. points out that an FAQ section on the Ombuds Office’s website “explicitly provide(s) that emails are not confidential.”
“If you call the office, please do not leave any confidential information in voicemail. Likewise, it is important to know that email is NOT a confidential method of communication,” the FAQ section reads. “If you choose to contact the Ombuds through email, please limit communications to scheduling appointments and refrain from providing other basic details about your inquiry or concern.”
UM also argues that, because Mississippi universities are “considered part of the executive branch of state government,” the court “cannot wade into the University’s ongoing personnel investigation without violating Mississippi’s constitutional separation of powers.
The university “is entitled to constitutional deference from the legislative and judicial branches when fulfilling its role as an executive branch agency,” the motion to dismiss says, adding that Caffera also should have “exhausted” other remedies before filing a lawsuit.
The university’s filing also rebuffs Caffera’s request for the university to pay for his legal costs. In his original complaint, the ombudsman cited the 2015 charter, which says “the Office of the Ombudsperson shall have access to independent legal counsel when necessary in order to fulfill the functions of the position.”
“Here, Plaintiff unilaterally hired counsel to represent his own interests, and he cannot now charge the taxpayers of Mississippi with the bill. … The very agreement he relies on for the creation of the Ombuds’ powers is not entered into with the Office of the Ombuds, or someone acting on its purported independent behalf, but the university’s former Chancellor and General Counsel,” the university’s attorney argues in the Dec. 23 motion to dismiss.
“Accordingly, Caffera lacks the unilateral and unchecked ability to retain his own counsel without approval from the University. The University retains the ultimate authority to determine if independent counsel shall be appointed to provide assistance to the Office of the Ombuds, and to dictate who shall fulfill such obligations if necessary. Caffera’s request for attorneys’ fees lacks merit.”
Since last summer, UM officials have declined repeated requests for a phone interview to discuss the issues surrounding Caffera and the UM emails’ whistleblowers. In an email on Dec. 30, UM Associate Director of Strategic Communications Rod Guajardo pointed this publication to the Dec. 23 motion to dismiss.
“The information contained in this motion will stand as the university’s comment on the matter at this time,” he wrote.
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