What is at stake with Nikole Hannah-Jones’ denial of occupation | Siva Vaidhyanathan
Tenure in American universities is not given. It is deserved. Those of us who were fortunate enough to have been fortunate enough to win it understand only too well the effort it takes to get a warrant, the costs of failure, and the privileges it carries.
It is very difficult to fire us for researching, teaching and professing heterodox ideas. We tenured professors have something that only federal judges share with us – the confidence to speak and write our thoughts, knowing that society has given us the security to do so because we have worked so hard to deserve it. . We are guaranteed due process if the powerful try to get rid of us. This is what makes America’s research universities so great. This is why free, open and daring spirits thrive there.
If you are a prominent black woman, there is no guarantee that the assessment process for tenure will be conducted fairly. There is too much interest against you to be sure this will turn out well.
When the prestigious Hussman School of Journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill – the oldest public university in North America – went in search of a Knight Chair – funded by the Knight Foundation to promote the journalism education by bringing some of America’s best working journalists into the classroom – a distinguished alumnus of this school was the obvious choice.
Nikole Hannah-Jones is just such a former and such a journalist.
It did not go as planned. On Tuesday, we learned that conservative activists on the University of North Carolina board of trustees had taken the unprecedented decision to suspend Hannah-Jones’ nomination as Knight’s next president. All of the university’s former Knight Chairs had been permanently hired. All of North Carolina’s previous Knight chairs were white.
Unlike her white predecessors, Hannah-Jones will be offered a five-year term without a term. It was a clear slap in the face of his race, his gender, his prominence and above all his reluctance to bow to criticism. It denied her something that she had earned through hard work and years of practice. And it was a decision taken without serious consideration of his contributions to the field.
Hannah-Jones is exactly the kind of person one should want in a classroom, guiding students through the process of investigating, researching, writing and publishing. We should all wish the journalists of the future were as widely read, as hardworking and daring as Hannah-Jones is. Even college and graduate adults learn best by emulating those they respect and can watch their craft.
Over the course of a 20-year career, Hannah-Jones has won a National Magazine Award, a Polk Prize, a Pulitzer Prize, and a MacArthur Fellowship. Hannah-Jones was elected in 2021 to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences – one of the highest honors a writer can achieve in America. Among other topics, Hannah-Jones has covered public education, demography, Cuba, and civil rights.
As someone who spends every summer devouring stacks of articles, books, and teaching from academics contemplated for a position at America’s top universities – often candidates for tenure in journalism schools – I can attest that ‘Hannah-Jones largely meets the criteria for tenure. on all of his journalistic work.
But when a black woman in America achieves a high level of visibility, authority, and success, you can always count on someone in power who belittles her when given the chance. Here is an example of what Professor Koritha Mitchell calls “the assault of knowing your niche”.
In 2019, Hannah-Jones oversaw a provocative and moving 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 has sparked debate among historians and a reassessment of curriculum in high schools and colleges across the United States. By placing slavery and its legacy at the center of American history, Project 1619 echoes a strong and growing strain of academic work over the past 30 years. But he questions the “consensus” story of US history that has dominated most of the last 60 years of historiography.
As a work of history, the 1619 project was provocative but incomplete. But it is okay. It was, after all, thoughtful and well-researched work of journalism, intended for public consumption to spark curiosity and deliberation. Obviously, that’s exactly what he did.
But Project 1619 also sparked a furious backlash from conservatives who don’t like being reminded that black people are also allowed to tell America’s story, and that history is still there. being revised as new knowledge emerges and new questions arise.
The fact that the Tories demonized Hannah-Jones on Fox News and elsewhere wasn’t the only reason the board discriminated against Hannah-Jones. For more than a decade, a powerful conservative cabal has undermined academic research, freedom, and excellence in what until recently was the pride of this growing state.
Since the 1970s, North Carolina has benefited from an influx of educated citizens from other states, stimulating 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 seat of North Carolina State University), Durham (the site of the Duke University) and Chapel Hill (where the University of North Carolina is located). This social and economic magnet is now seen as a problem by those who wish to return North Carolina to its cruelest days.
Led by wealthy activists, the North Carolina Republican Party has waged an open campaign to destroy that state’s public university system. They want to dictate what teachers can write and teach. They wish to undermine the tradition of faculty governance that reinforces careful deliberation and prevents universities from bending to political fads, trends and pressures.
Such militant campaigns to destroy higher education and stifle research are at work in many American states. They almost crushed my alma mater, the University of Texas, in 2011. They almost did it in 2012 during a purge of the president of my current workplace, the University of Virginia. Conservative activists have been successful in other states, like Wisconsin and Iowa, which once held their top research universities in high regard for the accolades they’ve brought and the lives they’ve transformed.
The decision to suspend Hannah-Jones’ tenure was a wake-up call to other journalists and academics – not just black women, but especially black women. The power structures of many states will not tolerate freedom of thought or too much success for certain types of people.
What the powers that be in North Carolina haven’t understood is that their university needs Hannah-Jones more than it needs. There are dozens of other universities that would gladly grant him a post and enlighten their students with his wisdom. She will be fine. North Carolina, we can’t be so sure.