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Why it’s so important that UNC trustees give Nikole Hannah-Jones the tenure she deserves

Demonstrators gather Friday at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to demand that the school offer tenure to award-winning investigative journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones. (Jonathan Drew/AP)

If every dispute about the history of race in America, every right-wing culture war and every debate over journalistic objectivity could be settled on a single battlefield, the location might be Chapel Hill, N.C. And the time might be Wednesday afternoon.

That’s when the University of North Carolina’s board of trustees is likely to vote on whether to offer tenure to Nikole Hannah-Jones, the New York Times magazine writer who won a Pulitzer Prize last year for the 1619 Project, an ambitious package of stories that seeks to reframe American history by putting front and center the impact of slavery.

This vote will be a high-stakes moment because, until now, UNC has effectively denied tenure to Hannah-Jones, who is Black, breaking with its own tradition for similar appointments. And it has done so, apparently, because of politics.

What’s happened so far has been unfair to Hannah-Jones and dangerous for a major university’s reputation for academic freedom and for valuing diversity and equity. If the trustees vote to approve tenure on Wednesday, it can redeem a portion of its reputation, which has taken a big hit in recent weeks.

“Every day that this case hangs in limbo is another day that damage is being done to this university that we all cherish,” wrote the members of the university’s tenure committee in an open letter last week.

It’s a hopeful sign that the trustees apparently have decided to act. But given that the situation has made UNC a prominent outpost of the raging culture wars over the history of racism in America, it’s hard to be sure which way the vote will go. The fight over how to view racism in America is particularly heated right now. (My colleague Jeremy Barr wrote last week that a related topic, critical race theory — an academic framework for examining systemic racism — has been the subject of relentless bashing on Fox News, mentioned on the air more than 700 times this month.)

When Hannah-Jones was named Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism at UNC-Chapel Hill in late April, the appointment seemed to be a perfect match: Not only did she earn her master’s degree there, but she also started her journalism career in North Carolina. That career, which included stints at the News & Observer in Raleigh and at ProPublica, has brought her such accolades as a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” in 2017.

But there was pushback to her appointment. The 1619 Project has been much criticized by conservatives, who vehemently reject its reframing of American history. Donald Trump, as president last year, called it “toxic propaganda, ideological poison that if not removed will dissolve the civic bonds that tie us together.”

How the 1619 Project took over 2020

One of those who voiced concern was Walter E. Hussman Jr., an Arkansas newspaper publisher and major donor to the university; its journalism school was named for him in 2019. In an email last year to the journalism school’s dean, Susan King, he fretted “about the controversy of tying the UNC journalism school to the 1619 project,” according to the North Carolina news site the Assembly.

Hussman has insisted he did not try to force any particular action on the journalism school dean or threaten to withhold the balance of his $25 million commitment to the school if Hannah-Jones were hired.

“I never pressured anybody,” he told NC Policy Watch.

But it soon became clear that the tenure that had been awarded to Hannah-Jones’s predecessors as UNC’s Knight chairs would not be forthcoming, at least in the near term, since the board of trustees declined to take action on it — in effect, breaking with past practice.

So last week, her legal team drew a line in the sand: Despite having previously agreed to a five-year contract, she would not begin at the school without tenure. Having learned that a powerful donor had weighed in on the conversation, it wrote, Hannah-Jones had no faith that the board would ever give good-faith consideration to awarding her tenure.

Tenure or nothing, in other words. That struck me as a pretty reasonable response to all that had happened.

The 1619 Project may not have been flawless. Mainstream historians have quibbled with some of the assertions Hannah-Jones made in her prizewinning essay, such as that preserving slavery was among the colonists’ primary reasons for launching the Revolutionary War, or that Abraham Lincoln was hesitant about emancipation. But these are ordinary scholarly disputes that do nothing to take away from the overall value of the work.

Nonetheless, they have been seized upon by conservatives in an attempt to discredit her entire premise.

One of the voices objecting to Nikole Hannah-Jones’s hiring at UNC: A newspaper baron — and major donor

Hussman calls himself an ardent supporter of traditional objectivity — the endlessly debated idea that journalism should give essentially equal weight to both sides of political conflicts even if the two sides aren’t equally valid, and that reporters shouldn’t express their views.

But as the Assembly noted in a follow-up article, that’s not necessarily the way he’s run his newspapers in Arkansas. Last year in an October editorial, his Democrat-Gazette came mighty close to being one of the very few American papers to endorse Trump — surely the leading opponent of the reality-based press.

His paper was also among the Southern newspapers that spent decades declaring their allegiance to objectivity while actually continuing “the battle on behalf of white-supremacist rule and anti-Black racism,” wrote Sid Bedingfield, a professor at the University of Minnesota who has studied journalism in the Jim Crow era.

None of these fights will be settled by a vote approving tenure for Hannah-Jones. But such a vote would make a powerful statement. It would also be the right thing to do.

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