The lessons learned

The Charlotte (N.C.) Observer

Nikole Hannah-Jones won’t be teaching journalism students at the University of North Carolina, but in turning down the job she has taught university leaders painful and crucial lessons.

First among them is that attempts by conservative officeholders, appointees and donors to steer the university rightward are having a disastrous effect on UNC’s once shining reputation. Imposing political ideology on what is supposed to be a haven for free thinking is bad enough. The ideologues have compounded the damage with their incompetence, first with the fight over the removal of the Confederate statue known as Silent Sam and now with the bitter departure of a prominent Black journalist who is not silent about the racist currents that run through U.S. history.

Hannah-Jones also provided UNC leaders – particularly UNC Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz and outgoing Provost Bob Blouin – a tutorial about the cost of going along with their conservative overseers.

In a lengthy statement released Tuesday, she described her shifting perceptions of how she was being treated by her alma mater as the Board of Trustees delayed and finally agreed by a 9-4 vote to approve her for tenure. In the end, she said, it wasn’t just the treatment she received from the Board of Trustees that drove her decision, but the reluctance of UNC’s top leaders to publicly advocate for her. She wrote, “Once again, when leadership had the opportunity to stand up, it did not.”

At the start, UNC proudly announced that Hannah-Jones, a Pulitzer Prize winner and a MacArthur “genius grant” recipient, would be teaching under an endowed professorship, the Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism, at the Hussman School of Journalism and Media. The position has traditionally come with tenure dating back to the 1980s, but when Hannah-Jones’ tenure application – strongly supported by the faculty tenure committee – came before the Board of Trustees action was delayed.

The delay clearly reflected doubts about granting tenure to a journalist whose ”1619 project” at The New York Times drew criticism from conservatives for emphasizing the roles of slavery and racism in the founding of the United States. Among doubters was Walter Hussman, the Arkansas newspaper publisher whose name was placed on the journalism school after he donated $25 million.

Once Hussman’s objections surfaced, Hannah-Jones decided she could not teach at a school named for a man who questioned her worthiness to teach there. So now, Hannah-Jones is moving on to Howard University where she will teach there – with tenure – about race and journalism under a professorship endowed by the Knight Foundation. At Howard, she also plans to create the Center for Journalism and Democracy, backed by more than $20 million in foundation grants.

The reluctance to grant Hannah-Jones tenure has exposed problems at UNC that conservatives have compounded, but did not create. Hannah-Jones noted them in her statement. One is a lack of diversity in the school’s leadership and its faculty and a chronic failure to address the concerns of Black students and faculty members.

Another is a lack of transparency about how and why the university is operating. UNC prides itself on being the nation’s first public university, but it behaves like a private enterprise, reluctant to release records or hold itself accountable to the public.

This weakness, so apparent in the university’s handling of the athletic-academic scandal and Silent Sam fiasco, showed up again in the silence and secrecy surrounding Hannah-Jones application for tenure.

The Hannah-Jones controversy has hurt UNC’s reputation and raised anew questions of race at the university. That damage can’t be easily fixed, but it can be immediately addressed. That should begin with a review and disclosure of what happened and what should be done so that it doesn’t happen again. Let that be UNC’s 2021 Project.

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