Tenure, academic freedom, and the 1619 Project

I have mixed views on the 1619 Project. I think the balance of the evidence suggests NHJ really should have been more careful with her history, which she somewhat distorted to achieve her ideological goals.  That said, I think the larger point– really fundamentally re-thinking the role of slavery and Black Americans in our history and the very meaning of the American nation is a worthy and important undertaking. And, for the most part, accurately and very well done.

Anyway, on the back of her very impressive resume in journalism– and it’s damn impressive whether or not one agrees with her ideological project– Jones was offered a prestigious, tenured position a the UNC School of Journalism.   Alas, the best evidence seems to clearly indicate, though, that the UNC Board of Trustees (appointed by the Republican-led state legislature, refused to grant her tenure).  Apparently the Board of Trustees is basically a rubber stamp for every tenure case (mine too, presumably), but conservative outrage led to what seems like a transparently political denial.  They hang it on the reed that Jones is not a real academic (something that as a PhD professor tenured for my scholarship, I was initially open to), but, it turns out that it is common practice to give tenured Journalism positions to journalists who are not academics.  So, so much for that.  Anyway, good details in the N&O story:

Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times investigative journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones will not be a tenured professor when she joins UNC-Chapel Hill’s Hussman School of Journalism and Media in July.

Instead, her role as the Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism will be as a fixed-term “Professor of the Practice,” with the option of being reviewed for tenure within five years.

The journalism school’s dean, Susan King, said she was told that the UNC-CH Board of Trustees was hesitant to give tenure to someone outside of academia.

But the news comes as Hannah-Jones has been a lightning rod for some conservatives critical of her work, particularly on The 1619 Project, which explores the legacy and history of Black Americans and slavery. Her piece won the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for Commentary, but faced scrutiny from some historians and politicians and led to a clarification from the New York Times.

“Investigative journalists always are involved in controversies,” King said. “They dig deep, and they raise questions that demand answers. Part of what they do is raise uncomfortable questions for people, institutions and systems.”’

NC PolicyWatch first reported that UNC “backed down from offering” Hannah-Jones the tenure-track position after conservative criticism.

The board has the authority to approve all tenured positions, which are lifetime appointments. In the message, King said she was told: “the board was worried about a non-academic entering the university with this designation.”

However, all of UNC-CH’s previous Knight Chairs have been appointed with tenure, and the position is designed to bring professionals into academia. Some Knight Chairs around the nation are not tenured positions, King wrote, but this will have implications for their next search and appointment of this role.

Tenure is a rigorous process that requires approval at many levels. Hannah-Jones was being courted by King before The 1619 Project was published and her hiring for this position has been months in the making.

As part of her tenure package, Hannah-Jones met with groups of faculty and taught a class at UNC-CH. She wrote a statement about her professional vision, teaching and service and presented her body of work to be explored by the journalism school’s promotion and tenure committee, which voted to approve her. That package was also reviewed by outside academics and presented to all tenured faculty in the journalism school. Then King presented it to the provost, to the promotion and tenure committee at the university level and then to the Board of Trustees.

Nice succinct statement from FIRE:

FIRE is investigating reports that the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill’s Board of Trustees declined to follow through on a recommendation from the faculty and chancellor that journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones, best known as the creator of The New York Times’ “1619 Project,” be granted a tenured appointment as the Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism. Hannah-Jones will instead be offered a term appointment without tenure.

If it is accurate that this refusal was the result of viewpoint discrimination against Hannah-Jones, particularly based on political opposition to her appointment, this decision has disturbing implications for academic freedom, which is vital in allowing faculty members to voice divergent views and in avoiding casting what the Supreme Court called a “pall of orthodoxy” over the classroom. When decisions on academic tenure incorporate a form of political litmus test, this freedom is gravely compromised.

Also, what’s interesting is that our local right-wing Higher Education “thinktank” appears to be instrumental in drumming up opposition to NHJ that almost surely affected the Board of Trustees.  It’s kind of tempting to go through point-by-point just how ridiculous this article, “School of Journalism—or Ministry of Propaganda?” from their Director of Policy Analysis, but I will let’s it’s overblown, if not downright Trumpian language speak for itself:

The real goal of The 1619 Project was not historical or journalistic, but political agitation. And an angry, underhanded politics at that; Hannah-Jones admitted that her underlying intent is to get “white people to give up whiteness.” That is, to make them regard their identities as something abhorrent. As Arthur Milikh of the Heritage Foundation wrote:

The overriding lesson is clear: young people must learn to despise their nation—its Constitution, ideals, economic system, and its Founders.

Damn, somehow this white guy missed that lesson to hate myself and my whiteness when reading this nor do I hate the Constitution, etc.  I guess NHJ is a failure.

Anyway, not at all a precedent we want in academia and very concerning that this is happening in my own university system.  

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State http://faculty.chass.ncsu.edu/shgreene

2 Responses to Tenure, academic freedom, and the 1619 Project

  1. R. Jenrette says:

    She should not accept the appointment since it was on lesser terms than her predecessors had.
    Stand up for women’s equality and academic freedom.

    • Steve Greene says:

      Call me crazy, but I strongly suspect that the BOT would have made the exact same decision if somehow a white man was the intellectual force behind the 1619 Project.

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