The University of North Carolina is one of America’s great educational institutions — that’s not easy to say as a Wake Forest graduate married to a Duke alumna.
But UNC’s cherished history of excellence is being challenged by right-wing political yahoos interfering in its academic affairs. The latest is the refusal of the Chapel Hill board of trustees to grant tenure to New York Times journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones for an endowed Knight chair at the Hussman School of Journalism.
They claim it’s because of her lack of academic credentials. That — I think — is a lie. The Knight chairs are intended to enlist top people from journalism to complement the faculty’s academics. None of the previous UNC Knight chairs were from an academic background — and all got tenure.
The real reason, I suspect, is racial controversy and cancel culture.
Hannah-Jones, who is Black, authored the Times’ “1619 Project” about race in America, a favorite target of the political right.
Chuck Duckett, the UNC trustee who officially put tenure for Jones on hold, said it was concern over her academic qualifications. Then last week he admitted he’d just seen her tenure dossier and curricula vitae the day before. Tenure offers professors security; Hannah-Jones, a UNC alumna, has a five-year teaching contract.
Hannah-Jones has an impressive career with in-depth investigative work on issues like the resegregation of schools; she ended up at the Times six years ago. She was awarded a McArthur “genius” fellowship to study for a year, and later won a Pulitzer Prize.
Jill Abramson, who was executive editor of the Times before Jones joined, told me: “She is a fantastic journalist.”
The 1619 Project places slavery at the center of the American experience. There is scholarship in that study, and only a bigoted fool would deny that slavery and racism are a shameful stain on America.
Still, prominent historians have taken strong exception to her conclusion that slavery was the driving force behind Americans seeking independence.
The Times and Hannah-Jones have since backed down from that sweeping conclusion.
One of the most distinguished critics of that thesis is Princeton history professor Sean Wilentz. He remains critical, but in a column co-authored last week for the Chronicle of Higher Education, Wilentz assailed the UNC trustees, charging that “to interfere unilaterally on blatantly political grounds is an attack on the integrity of the very institution it oversees.”
For tenure, Hannah-Jones — like any other candidate — went through a comprehensive peer review process, was interviewed by faculty members and presented a statement of her teaching vision, all of which had to be approved by the tenure committee, reviewed by outside academics who sent it to the provost, who then forwarded it for what should have been routine action by trustees.
Except in rare cases, trustees have no expertise to evaluate tenure recommendations; it’s why it’s left to the faculty and administration.
In 20 years as a Wake Forest trustee, I never recall a controversy — even a real discussion — over a tenure appointment.
At the University of North Carolina, the process has been politicalized by the right-wing legislature, which appoints the Board of Governors, which in turn oversees the trustees at the various state schools.
They were the ones who, Trump-like, pressured Chapel Hill to conduct in-person classes last August, despite COVID-19 warnings from health officials. A week later the campus had to close.
They were the ones who embroiled the university in a controversy over the “Silent Sam” statute, erected in 1913 to celebrate Confederate veterans.
Hannah-Jones is only the latest target of their outrage. Margaret Spellings, who won bipartisan respect as President George W. Bush’s education secretary, was tapped as president of the University of North Carolina. After a few years, she left — fed up with this crowd.
The anti-Hannah-Jones drumbeat has been leveling farcical charges: One group claimed she is a creation of “a powerful coalition with Democratic socialists, the media and ‘woke’ crony capitalists.” Another charged that students would have to “sit there and accept her beliefs if they’re to get a good grade.” These groups have ties to the right-wing legislature — and to the university’s Board of Governors.
What really agitates these characters is any conversation about critical race theory, which places slavery and race at the center of American history.
There may be an overreach in that theory, but it’s an important discussion well worth debating. Would these North Carolina politicians and trustees object to tenure for professors who teach supply-side economics or a neo-conservative national security agenda?
What these right-wing figures fear is that young Carolina women and men will be indelibly indoctrinated with leftist propaganda. That shows their insecurities. If it’s so indelible, why have so many Republican leaders been graduates of elite Ivy League universities, those bastions of liberalism? The last three GOP presidents, five members of the Supreme Court’s conservative bloc and Senate bomb-throwers Josh HawleyJoshua (Josh) David Hawley9 Republicans not named Trump who could run in 2024 Juan Williams: GOP extremism is poisoning the nation Biden walks fine line with probe into coronavirus origins MORE (R-Mo.) and Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzUS-Israel relations poised to enter new phase without Netanyahu Defense secretary knocks Cruz: Military will ‘never be too soft’ ATF nominee tells lawmakers he supports AR-15 ban MORE (R-Texas) are all “elite” ivy grads.
To be sure there is a left-wing cancel culture and left-wing woke-ism on some college campuses. The antidote is not a right-wing cancel culture.
It’s professors like Hannah-Jones who honor Chapel Hill’s legacy; it’s the politicians and their cronies who threaten it.
Al Hunt is the former executive editor of Bloomberg News. He previously served as reporter, bureau chief and Washington editor for the Wall Street Journal. For almost a quarter century he wrote a column on politics for The Wall Street Journal, then The International New York Times and Bloomberg View. He hosts Politics War Room with James Carville. Follow him on Twitter @AlHuntDC.