UM Pursuing ‘Criminal Investigation’ Into Whistleblowers Who Exposed Racist Emails

University of Mississippi Campus Police are investigating Ole Miss Information, a group of whistleblowers who uncovered dozens of racist, sexist emails between school officials and wealthy donors. The messages served as the basis for the Mississippi Free Press' "UM Emails" exposé. Photo by Thomas Graning courtesy Ole Miss Communications

University of Mississippi Campus Police are pursuing a criminal investigation into Ole Miss Information, a group of anonymous whistleblowers who, last year, provided the Mississippi Free Press with copies of emails that served as the basis for this publication’s “UM Emails” exposé. 

Documents that UM Ombudsman Paul Caffera’s attorneys filed in a Lafayette County Chancery Court on Feb. 3 allude to the existence of an investigation into the Ole Miss Information whistleblowers.

The UM Emails series revealed how some UM officials had repeatedly catered to certain wealthy donors’ sexist and racist views in order to obtain financial gifts for the university.

“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. … I happen to know what happens when a place is overtaken by the wrong elements,” read one September 2018 email that wealthy UM alumnus Blake Tartt, a Houston businessman, sent to then-Meek School of Journalism and New Media Dean Will Norton.

Tartt attached photos of Black women in tight-clothing enjoying a night out in Oxford to the email. 

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, saying he had “been really disappointed for a long time with the way this culture is going,” as the journalism dean wrote back the next morning.

Transparent Ole Miss, another whistleblower organization, procured those and dozens of similar emails through an official public-records request last spring. Dean Norton resigned within weeks after asking UM General Counsel Erica McKinley if she thought the whistleblowers would “relent” if he resigned before the university turned over the emails.

After receiving the emails in late March, Transparent Ole Miss shared them with Ole Miss Information, and both groups provided copies of the messages to MFP. The Mississippi Free Press verified the authenticity of the emails.

The emails showed that, days after the email in which Tartt shared photos of Black students with the journalism school dean, Norton publicly condemned Ed Meek and called for his name to be removed from the journalism school as its namesake and founding donor drew accusations of racism for a Facebook post that included some of Tartt’s photos.

As Meek’s name came off the journalism school, neither Norton nor other UM officials or journalism faculty noted Tartt’s role in the incident, and officials appointed him to serve on a committee to select a new chancellor in 2019. (You can examine many of those emails and the events that have unfolded in the intervening months with our new UM Emails timeline, which we will continually update as events unfold.)

UPD Investigation Joins ‘Hostile Workplace’ Investigation

Ombudsman Caffera, whose role the University’s 2015 Ombudsperson Charter Agreement describes as “a confidential and independent resource available to University employees for University-related concerns” and “to identify systemic concerns,” sued in November to bar University officials from accessing his private communications in their attempt to out the whistleblowers.

“The purpose of a university ombuds is to provide a safe and confidential place for members of a university community to bring forward issues of concern in a manner that protects them from retribution or retaliation for having spoken about their concerns,” Caffera told the Mississippi Free Press in a Dec. 2 statement.

University of Mississippi Ombudsman Paul Caffera says the 2015 charter that established the Office of Ombuds prevents him from revealing information about visitors to his office. Photo courtesy Ole Miss Digital Imaging Services

The University’s Equal Opportunity and Regulatory Enforcement Office first contacted Caffera seeking information in October as part of their investigation into the whistleblowers on allegations of a “hostile work environment.” EORC investigations are not criminal in nature, but the organization can make employment-related recommendations to the administration if any wrongdoing is found.

In October 2020 emails, Ombudsman Caffera told EORC Interim Director Gene Rowzee that the 2015 Ombudsperson Charter 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.” The charter also says “the Ombudsperson shall be protected from retaliation as a result of his/her role.”

Caffera’s Feb. 3 filing says that, in October, EORC Interim Director Eugene Rowzee informed him that he was implicated in the investigation into the whistleblowers, though the director did not offer any specific allegations. Caffera and his attorney, Goodloe Lewis later participated in two interviews with Rowzee, where he said he did not know the identity of the anonymous whistleblowers.

“Caffera was also contacted by an investigator from the University Police Department (hereinafter ‘UPD’) named Kendall Brown looking to interview him, and his counsel was advised that the subject of the investigation was certain anonymous emails sent to persons in the Department of Journalism and New Media,” a Feb. 3 court filing from Caffera’s attorney says. 

“The UPD, which reports to (UM Provost Noel) Wilkin … has never identified any criminal statue that was allegedly violated by the emails in question.”

The filing also says that EORC Interim Director Rowzee “advised that any information Caffera did provide might be forwarded to UPD for assistance in its criminal investigation” and that Caffera, in a later interview with the EORC, said “that he was not sending emails to the School of Journalism and New Media under a pseudonym or at all.”

Before Investigations, Fears of a ‘Witch Hunt’

Soon after Caffera filed his lawsuit, UM Chancellor Glenn Boyce placed the ombudsman on administrative leave, barring him from exercising his duties as ombudsman. Boyce appointed a UM law school professor, William W. Berry, as the temporary acting ombudsman in December.

Campus Police declined to answer questions about the investigation or even confirm its existence, instead directing all questions about any UPD cases to the university’s public relations office. Officials there have not yet responded to a request for comment.

After the whistleblowers obtained the trove of emails in 2020, they sent the Norton-Tartt emails, including the ones with the photos of Black women on The Square, to a number of journalism-school faculty members and UM administrators.

Former University of Mississippi School of Journalism and New Media Dean Will Norton, seen here in 2018 condemning school donor Ed Meek for a Facebook post criticizing Black women on the Oxford Town Square, resigned in April after a whistleblower’s public records request revealed similar remarks in email exchanges with another donor. Photo courtesy University of Mississippi

They also shared emails with faculty members in which Norton made disparaging comments about the sexuality of Shepard Smith, who is gay and attended the UM journalism school before working for Fox News and now CNBC.

The controversial Norton emails stayed under the radar, even after the whistleblowers shared them with faculty and urged them to take action.

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.

Whistleblowers Alleged Improper Pay, Promotions

In the summer and fall, the Ole Miss Information whistleblowers sent emails to journalism-school faculty raising concerns about the propriety of Norton continuing to receive an administrative bonus pay now that he is no longer a dean.

The Mississippi Free Press reported in November that Norton, now a member of the faculty after resigning last May, was still receiving about $80,000 more in yearly salary last September than his temporary replacement, Interim Journalism School dean Deb Wenger, was receiving. Norton did not teach any classes in the summer or fall.

Though the school is accusing the whistleblowers of targeting faculty for harassment with anonymous critical emails, the Mississippi Free Press obtained a copy of an emailed complaint that one Ole Miss Information whistleblower, who goes by the George Orwell-inspired pseudonym “Winston Smith,” sent to Mississippi Institutions of Higher Learning Commissioner Van Gillespie on Sept. 21, 2020. 

In it, the whistleblower claimed that “countless former administrators have been enriched with ‘additional salary’ well beyond the time they cease serving as administrators” and that some deans, including the former journalism school dean, had improperly promoted faculty members to positions they were not qualified to hold. 

In addition to emailing those allegations to IHL, which provides financial oversight for the state’s public institutions of higher learning, the whistleblower sent it to the Office of the State Auditor.

“For years, at the direction of the provost’s office, Ole Miss has violated this clear and unambiguous policy language,” Smith alleged in the email.

Provost Wilkin later defended the university’s pay policies in an email to the Mississippi Free Press, though he did not agree to a phone interview.

University of Mississippi Chancellor Glenn Boyce, seen right next to Provost Noel Wilkin, placed Ombudsman Paul Caffera on administrative leave on Dec. 1. In October, Provost Noel Wilkin, left, claimed the Ole Miss Information whistleblowers had “created a chilling effect” on faculty with their allegations of wrongdoing in UM’s pay and promotion practices. Photo courtesy University of Mississippi Marketing and Communications

Within days of “Winston Smith” sending the email to the state auditor and IHL, the UM EORC office and Campus Police, amid complaints from some members of the journalism-school faculty, opened an investigation into the Ole Miss Information whistleblowers. 

Documents the Mississippi Free Press examined show that both EORC and UM Campus Police began their investigations by the end of September.

The day after the Mississippi Free Press asked Wilkin for an interview to discuss the policy on pay for former administrators on Oct. 22, he 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.”

The whistleblowers’ emails, Wilkin wrote to the journalism faculty, have “increasingly created a chilling effect on faculty speech, dampened faculty collegiality, interfered with teaching and scholarship, and caused several to express they feel they work in a hostile environment.”

In the Oct. 23 letter, Wilkin alluded to the fact that the whistleblower had also raised questions about whether administrators, including Norton in the journalism department, may have improperly hired professors or given some faculty members promotions, including to tenure-track positions for which they did not qualify under IHL guidelines’ defined minimum standards.

“These are truly difficult times. … For you, this has been further aggravated by ongoing, persistent, and accusatory emails from an anonymous source,” Wilkin wrote to journalism faculty on Oct. 23. “The nature of the anonymous allegations and the questions asked seem to indicate that those behind the emails do not understand our policies, our practices, or the definitions of terminal degrees.” 

Teach.com defines a “terminal degree” as one granting its recipient with “the highest level of education available in their chosen field.”

Though Wilkin did not rebuff the specific allegations, he wrote that he was “sure all of us would be happy to explain our processes and practices.”

“After all, they are public, and we all have a responsibility to embrace, adhere, and explain them. Yet, the emails persist,” he wrote.

Provost Wilkin, journalism faculty and the interim dean, and other UM officials have declined interviews about any subjects related to the UM emails and the whistleblowers throughout this publication’s coverage beginning in early August 2020.

UM Scrubbed References to Caffera

Caffera’s Nov. 3 filing notes that Rowzee, the EORC interim director, tried to get him to share information about the whistleblowers in a Nov. 22 interview.

Image links to the Plaintiff's response t the motion to dismiss
Caffera’s attorney referenced UPD’s “criminal investigation” of the Ole Miss Information whistleblowers in this Feb. 3 court filing. Click the preview to read the document.

“Despite unequivocally advising Rowzee that he could not disclose information obtained in conjunction with his position as Ombuds, he was still asked: ‘Do you have any idea who is posting under or sending emails [to the School of Journalism and New Media] under these pseudonyms?” the filing reads. “Caffera responded that any information he would have on that subject would be both a violation of the confidentiality of the Ombuds Office and speculative.”

The recent filing says that though “Caffera was repeatedly advised that the EO/RC investigation would be complete around the first of December, as of this filing, no resolution has occurred and this situation drags on.”

Caffera, who remains the official UM ombudsman, is still on administrative leave, and Berry continues to serve as acting ombudsman. Caffera’s contract, which could still be renewed, does not end until mid-summer.

“Further, the University has removed any reference to Caffera even being employed by the University, which causes a stigma associated with Caffera’s status with the University and damages his reputation and economic value in the marketplace,” the filing reads.

In December, several faculty members who have relied on Caffera’s services as ombudsman, speaking under condition of anonymity, told the Mississippi Free Press that they feared the university’s efforts to unearth the whistleblowers’ identities by accessing Caffera’s files could risk also exposing their own identities—opening them up to potential retaliation from superiors. 

One of those faculty members, Ruth Ford (whose name has been changed to protect their identity), said they feared there was a “plot” to “get rid of Paul (Caffera).”

“Because you write letters to the dean, you write letters to the provost, and they either ignore a faculty member or tell you they’re going to look into it or worse,” Ford said. “And Paul Caffera makes things happen in terms of facilitating conversations, and those conversations are needed. He has done a lot of good for this university. … People would be terrified of speaking up because people who speak up get hammered at this university.”

In a December statement, the International Ombudsman Association (IOA) said that “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.” 

“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,” the IOA statement read.

International Ombudsman Association Executive Director Chuck Howard

In an MFP Voices piece last month, IOA’s executive director, Chuck Howard, explained the importance of universities adhering to their established ombuds charters.

On Jan. 19, Caffera’s attorney filed a motion for preliminary injunction and declaratory judgment, asking the court to “immediately enforce the Charter Agreement as to any effort by the University to compel Caffera to disclose confidential information obtained by him in his capacity as Ombuds.”

“The University is currently trying to identify certain anonymous persons who have sent emails to faculty in the School of Journalism and New Media that the University contends is creating a hostile work environment, and has asked Caffera to disclose confidential information he has obtained by and through his position as Ombuds,” the filing says. 

“Upon information and belief (because the University has not provided them to Caffera), the emails in question generally pertain to issues of public concern, particularly whether University administrators have followed University and Mississippi Institutions of Higher Learning … policies, and where there may be improper use of public funds as to certain University employees’ compensation. The University has advised him that if he does not cooperate, it may take adverse employment action against him.”

Caffera’s later filing on Feb. 3, a response to the university’s effort to dismiss his lawsuit, alleges UM “has already (taken adverse employment action against him) by placing him on administrative leave and scrubbing the University website of any mention that Caffera is still employed by the University, thus causing him reputation and resultant economic damage.”

In a December motion to dismiss, the university accused Caffera of “raising false alarms” over the whistleblower investigation.

‘A Culture of Secrecy’

Included among the thousands of emails Transparent Ole Miss obtained through its public-records request last spring are ones from December 2018 in which Caffera wrote that he was concerned the school was attempting to out a whistleblower who had leaked a recording of a Meek School meeting regarding Meek’s Facebook post to a Mississippi Today reporter.

“The alleged recent efforts of JNM Leadership to persuade a reporter to reveal the name/names of the sources/sources who provided the news outlet Mississippi Today (on whose Board of Directors Dean Norton sits) with a recording (or recordings) of a September 20 meeting at Farley Hall … might reasonably persuade an employee of JNM that JNM Leadership could be inclined toward vindictiveness,” Caffera wrote on Dec. 17, 2018. 

“Allegedly, during a Nov. 30, 2018 JNM School meeting, Dean Norton informed the JNM faculty of the School’s attempts to uncover the identity/identities of Ganucheau’s source/sources.”

At the time, Caffera was seeking documents related to an August 2018 Meek School hiring search that a faculty member had anonymously raised concerns about. In an email to UM officials, including Provost Wilkin, Dean Norton and EORC’s Rowzee on Dec. 17, 2018, UM General Counsel McKinley directed the administrators not to turn any information over to Caffera.

“Please do not provide Paul any requested material, whether email, documents, or recordings. If Paul engages you again or if you receive any further requests from Paul, please direct him to the General Counsel’s office,” she wrote.

“Please do not provide Paul any requested material, whether email, documents, or recordings. If Paul engages you again or if you receive any further requests from Paul, please direct him to the General Counsel’s office,” UM General Counsel Erica McKinley (pictured) wrote in a December 2018 email.

After Transparent Ole Miss obtained the stash of emails through its public-records request last spring and shared them with Ole Miss Information, “Winston Smith,” the Ole Miss Information whistleblower, sent an op-ed to The Daily Mississippian, the campus newspaper.

“There is a sickness that permeates Ole Miss and it is enabled by a culture of secrecy,” Smith wrote. “Recent efforts to silence faculty through an oppressive media relations policy are but a symptom of this disease brought upon Ole Miss by the neo-Confederates and racists who pull the strings in Mississippi and at Ole Miss and do not want a campus for ALL Mississippians. We all know about the hidden institutional racism at Ole Miss.” 

The campus newspaper did not publish the op-ed, telling the whistleblower it was too long, and the emails did not gain widespread public exposure until August, when the Mississippi Free Press broke the story with the original three-part UM Emails exposé.

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