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As others have written, recent events at UNC and W&L point to tensions between faculty members and university administrations over the principle of shared governance. Although Hannah-Jones’s record was found to be exemplary by experts in her field and by UNC faculty members, the Board of Trustees did not accept their recommendation to award her with tenure upon appointment. At Washington and Lee — my own campus — faculty voted by an overwhelming margin to remove “Lee” from the university’s name. Nearly a year later, the Board of Trustees rejected that recommendation. These disagreements reflect a continuing nationwide struggle over who should make decisions at colleges and universities.
They also have powerful implications for academic freedom among faculty of color. Academic freedom is a cornerstone of higher education because it protects the right of faculty members and students to follow their intellectual pursuits without fear of censorship or constraint. Yet the decision to withhold tenure from Hannah-Jones in light of her influential work on The New York Times Magazine‘s “1619 Project” suggests that to critique white supremacy, particularly as a scholar of color, is to place one’s career in jeopardy.
Elsewhere too, scholars who study race and racism have had tenure bids denied by boards of trustees despite departmental support — as happened at Calvin University in 2018. Such incidents are especially alarming given that trustees may very well be invested in upholding the systems of oppression that such scholarship seeks to dismantle. (Last year, for instance, a trustee at Cuesta College was censured for racist social-media posts.) The implicit threat of career penalties for studying racism runs contrary to the principle of academic freedom that undergirds the work all faculty perform. And when boards of trustees position themselves in opposition to social progress, it calls into question their ability to protect academic freedom for faculty of color in particular.
Let’s be clear about who we are commemorating: Robert E. Lee and George Washington were both enslavers. Lee, in particular, fought to preserve slavery in his capacity as a Confederate general. At his plantation in Virginia, he separated enslaved families and whipped fugitives from slavery. After the Civil War, as president of what was then called Washington College, Lee turned a blind eye to the sexual violence that white male students committed against young Black girls. Despite — or perhaps because of — these atrocities, I sometimes revel at the thought of how incensed Lee himself might be to know that I am here — a Black woman paid to teach Black women’s history at an institution named for him.
There can be no academic freedom where boards of trustees cultivate an atmosphere of disdain for antiracist work.
Still, we cannot simply ignore the fact that the name of this institution invites dangerous behavior from violent white-supremacist groups. In 2018, following discussions of a potential name change spurred by the deadly Unite the Right Rally in nearby Charlottesville, Va., the Ku Klux Klan left pamphlets on the Washington and Lee campus urging, “K-K-Keep the name the same!!!” The campaign seems to have paid off. That year, and again three years later, the W&L administration K-K-Kept the name.
The opposition to letting go of Lee reveals a deep-seated racism that raises troubling questions. If the Board of Trustees repeatedly fails to understand how this country’s racist past is connected to its racist present, will they reward research and teaching that, like my own, look at this very relationship? If the Board of Trustees fails to recognize that the university’s name is openly antagonistic to Black students and faculty, how can faculty of color be sure that their tenure and promotion processes will be free of racial bias? If the Board of Trustees fails to see that the university’s name is a relic of white supremacy, how can faculty trust that they will not be penalized for challenging white supremacy through their research and teaching?
Decisions like those of the UNC and W&L Boards of Trustees have a chilling effect on scholarship on divisive social issues. And perhaps that is the intent. There can be no academic freedom where boards of trustees cultivate an atmosphere of disdain for antiracist work. There can be no academic freedom without the freedom to study race and racism. Faculty of color, in particular, require the security to do their jobs without the threat of being fired or denied tenure simply for interrogating systems of oppression.
The material consequences of UNC’s decision are already becoming visible. The UNC department of chemistry recently made public a letter to Chancellor Kevin M. Guskiewicz describing how Hannah-Jones’s tenure snub was hurting its “ability to recruit and attract a diverse and talented faculty.” The candidate in question, a Black chemist named Lisa Jones, said she withdrew her candidacy because the board’s decision “does not seem in line with a school that says it is interested in diversity.” The chemistry department affirmed Jones’s sentiments, asking, “How are we, the faculty at this University, supposed to defend our own values when the institution we represent does not uphold them?” Any efforts to advance institutional diversity, equity, and inclusion are tenuous, at best, when boards of trustees actively undercut their institution’s stated goals.
It is too soon to say how the board’s decision at W&L will affect the institution’s efforts to recruit and retain faculty of color. However, the insistence on preserving “Lee” in the university’s name sends a clear message about what kinds of scholarship — and what kinds of scholars — are valued here. As at UNC, the Board of Trustees has made its position clear: Academic freedom is for white people.