We previously discussed the controversy over the decision of the University of North Carolina’s Hussman School of Journalism and Media to make Nikole Hannah-Jones a chaired professor. Hannah-Jones was made the offer despite leading academics challenging the historical account in her 1619 Project as deeply flawed as well as criticism of her record as a journalist of intolerance, controversial positions on rioting, and fostering conspiracy theories. Now the school has rescinded the offer to Hannah-Jones to be the next Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism. Instead, it offered a five-year appointment to the faculty. I was one of those highly critical of the appointment, but I am equally troubled by the political interference with a faculty in making such academic decisions.
Various historians and experts blasted the 1619 project for erroneous facts (like when slaves first arrived in North America) and conclusions (like declining slavery as the defining motivation for the American Revolution). Hannah-Jones was accused of ignoring corrections before the publication of the work. The New York Times was criticized later for a “clarification” that undermined a main premise of her writing. In March 2020, the New York Times wrote “We recognize that our original language could be read to suggest that protecting slavery was a primary motivation for all of the colonists. The passage has been changed to make clear that this was a primary motivation for some of the colonists. A note has been appended to the story as well.” None of that appeared to concern the Pulitzer Committee anymore than University of North Carolina’s Hussman School of Journalism and Media.
Hannah-Jones would later help lead the effort at the Times to get rid of an editor and apologize for publishing a column from Sen. Tom Cotten as inaccurate and inflammatory.
All of those concerns were for the faculty to weigh in before making its decision. It still made her the offer. What concerns me is the statement of a trustee that the change was due entirely to political pressure from the legislature:
“This is a very political thing. The university and the Board of Trustees and the Board of Governors and the Legislature have all been getting pressure since this thing was first announced last month. There have been people writing letters and making calls, for and against. But I will leave it to you which is carrying more weight. It’s maybe not a solution that is going to please everyone. Maybe it won’t please anyone. But if this was going to happen, this was the way to get it done.”
The political interference with academic appointments should raise concerns for anyone who values academic freedom. I believe that Hannah-Jones’ record is the antipathy of journalistic and academic values of accuracy and objectivity. However, the faculty did not take that view. They clearly rejected the criticism of his 1619 Project and embraced her type of advocacy journalism. They have every right to do so. The University has a right to countermand that decisions, but, if it is going to do so, it should be open and transparent on the basis for the action.
The decision lacks any inherent coherence or clarity. Critics believe Hannah-Jones’ record is the rife with inaccurate and biased accounts. Yet, if Hannah-Jones is not qualified to be a chaired professor due to these issues, she is presumably not qualified to be a contract professor. While it is true that tenure requires a more substantial showing of qualifications (and a chair even more so), any academic position must be placed on the candidate’s record and merits. Hannah-Jones will still be teaching students at UNC and serving as a faculty member. Moreover, it will not be a tenured position. Universities have a final say on tenure and particularly on chair appointments. However, it is rare to have this type of intervention. Even if the university objected to the chair appointment, this action also rejected the faculty’s decision on tenure.
The UNC action comes at a time when many are calling for more interventions at state schools to try to preserve institutions with a semblance of diversity in viewpoints. Faculties around the country have virtually purged conservative, libertarian, or even contrarian professors from their ranks. Many top schools are virtually devoid of conservative or libertarian faculty, let alone Republicans. We reached a tipping point years ago where liberal faculty members were able to effectively block most conservative applicants. The result is that the teaching academy is overwhelmingly liberal and Democratic. It is also increasingly intolerant. Boards may be pushed to be more active to forcing professors to accept greater ideological diversity.
State schools like UNC can offer a degree of tolerance and diversity that is virtually missing in private universities. However, it is unlikely that such balance will be preserved without pressure. That was the case with “free speech zones” and limits on free speech. Faculties uniformly failed to protect conservative and libertarian students and there is still an overwhelming atmosphere of intolerance on our campuses. Alumni, legislators, and board members can use funding to add pressure to these faculties to maintain greater diversity of viewpoints and ideology.
This presents a difficult tension for those of us who believe in the need for both faculty governance and greater diversity of viewpoints. However, this is not how a board should respond to such controversies. The Board adopted a position divorced from principle or logic. It failed to explain why it would rescind both a tenure and chair offer. Such rare decisions should come with a full and frank explanation from the University. Instead, we have an anonymous statement that this is a political compromise removed from the academic basis for the offer. If the Trustees want more intellectual diversity on the faculty, they should state so and address how to do so without gutting faculty governance. If it views this appointee as unqualified, it should state so.
In the end, the only thing more troubling than the original offer was its rescission.