What is at stake with Nikole Hannah-Jones being denied tenure

·6 min read
<span>Photograph: Evan Agostini/Invision/AP</span>
Photograph: Evan Agostini/Invision/AP

Tenure at American universities is not given. It’s earned. Those of us fortunate enough to have had a shot at earning it understand all too well the effort it takes to earn tenure, the costs of failing and privilege it conveys.

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It’s very difficult to fire us for researching, teaching and professing heterodox ideas. We tenured professors have something only federal judges share with us – the confidence to speak and write our minds, knowing that society has granted us the security to do so because we have worked so hard to earn it. We are guaranteed due process if the powerful try to dispose of us. That’s what makes American research universities so great. It’s why free, open, bold minds thrive in them.

If you are a prominent Black woman, there is no guarantee that the process of evaluation for tenure will be conducted fairly. There are too many interests stacked against you to trust it will go smoothly.

When the prestigious Hussman School of Journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill – the oldest public university in North America – went searching for a Knight chair – funded by the Knight Foundation to promote journalism education by putting some of America’s finest practicing journalists in the classroom – a distinguished alumna of that school was the obvious choice.

Nikole Hannah-Jones is just such an alumna and just such a journalist.

It did not turn out as planned. On Tuesday we learned that conservative activists on the University of North Carolina board of trustees took the unprecedented step of withholding tenure from Hannah-Jones’ appointment as the next Knight chair. All the previous Knight chairs at the university had been hired with tenure. All the previous Knight chairs at North Carolina were white.

Unlike her white predecessors, Hannah-Jones will be offered a five-year term without tenure. This was a clear slap at her race, gender, prominence and mostly her unwillingness to bow to critics. It denied her something she earned through hard work and years of practice. And it was a decision made without serious consideration of her contributions to the field.

Hannah-Jones is exactly the sort of person one should want in a classroom, guiding students through the process of investigation, research, writing and publication. We should all want journalists of the future to be as widely read, as hard-working, and as bold as Hannah-Jones is. Even adults in college and graduate school learn best by emulating those they respect and can watch wield their craft.

Over a career spanning 20 years, Hannah-Jones has won a National Magazine award, a Polk award, a Pulitzer prize and a MacArthur grant. Hannah-Jones was elected in 2021 to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences – one of top honors a writer may achieve in America. Among other subjects Hannah-Jones has covered public education, demographics, Cuba and civil rights.

As someone who spends each summer devouring piles of articles, books and teaching records of scholars being considered for tenure at America’s finest universities – often candidates for tenure in journalism schools – I can attest that Hannah-Jones more than meets the criteria for tenure based on all of her journalistic work.

But when a Black woman in America reaches a high level of visibility, authority and success, you can always count on somebody in power undercutting her when given the chance. This is an example of what Professor Koritha Mitchell calls “know-your-place aggression”.

In 2019 Hannah-Jones oversaw a provocative and stirring account for the New York Times Magazine of the sweep of American history, placing its founding in 1619 with the introduction of slavery to North America. The collection of essays by historians, sociologists, activists and journalists sparked debate among historians and re-assessment of curricula within high schools and colleges across the United States. By putting slavery and its legacy at the center of American history, the 1619 project echoes a strong and growing strain of scholarly work over the past 30 years. But it challenges the “consensus” story of US history that dominated most of the past 60 years of historiography.

As a work of history, the 1619 project was provocative yet incomplete. But that’s fine. It was, after all, a work of well researched, reflective journalism, meant for public consumption to spark curiosity and deliberation. By all accounts it did just that.

But the 1619 project also sparked a furious blowback from conservatives who don’t like to be reminded that Black people are allowed to tell the story of America as well, and that history is always under revision as new knowledge emerges and new questions rise.

That conservatives have demonized Hannah-Jones on Fox News and elsewhere was not the only reason why the board discriminated against Hannah-Jones. For more than a decade a powerful conservative cabal has been undermining academic research, freedom and excellence at what was until recently the pride of that rising and growing state.

For more than a decade a powerful conservative cabal has been undermining academic research, freedom, and excellence

Since the 1970s North Carolina has benefited from influxes of educated citizens from other states, lifting the economy and energizing the private sector. Much of this migration was drawn to the Research Triangle, the area around Raleigh (the state capital and home of North Carolina State University), Durham (the site of Duke University), and Chapel Hill (where the University of North Carolina sits). That social and economic magnet is now considered a problem by those who wish to take North Carolina back to its cruelest days.

Led by some wealthy activists, the Republican party of North Carolina has waged an open campaign to destroy the public university system of that state. They wish to dictate what professors may write and teach. They wish to undermine the tradition of faculty governance that bolsters careful deliberation and keeps universities from bowing to fads, trends and political pressure.

Such activist campaigns to destroy higher education and stifle research are at work in many US states. They almost crushed my alma mater, the University of Texas, in 2011. They came close to doing so in 2012 in a purge of the president of my current place of work, the University of Virginia. Conservative activists have succeeded in other states, like Wisconsin and Iowa, that once held their top-flight research universities in high esteem because of the honors they brought and the lives they transformed.

The decision to withhold tenure from Hannah-Jones was a warning shot to other journalists and scholars – not just black women, but especially black women. The power structures of many states will not tolerate freedom of thought or too much success from some kinds of people.

What the powers that be in North Carolina have not figured out is that their university needs Hannah-Jones more than she needs it. There are dozens of other universities that would gladly grant tenure to her and enlighten their students with her wisdom. She will be just fine. North Carolina, we can’t be so sure about.

  • Siva Vaidhyanathan is a professor of Mmedia studies at the University of Virginia and the author of Antisocial Media: How Facebook Disconnects Us and Undermines Democracy

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