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The UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees did not refuse to sign off on her tenure despite those accomplishments but because of them. Universities hire faculty members who work on the history of racism and share Hannah-Jones’s broad convictions and investments all the time, and regents, trustees, and governors do not get involved. Nikole Hannah-Jones is different because she drove the conversation into places where it could not be belittled and contained. As the Johns Hopkins historian Martha S. Jones, a historian of U.S. law and governance with a focus on the ways Black Americans have shaped democracy, told me:
“Regrettably, the brilliant Nikole Hannah-Jones joins a tragically elite cadre of educators too good for tenure. She’s now a peer to the great Derrick Bell, who modeled how our purpose lies in the integrity of our work, not in the measure of functionaries. Bell gave up tenure at Harvard Law 30 years ago, after the school failed to hire any Black woman faculty member. He would understand what has happened here and recognize that his fight continues in our own time.”
And indeed, across the country, the GOP and its lickspittles have decided, in part precisely because of the success of “The 1619 Project,” that the correct way to address systemic racism is not only to deny its existence but to legally mandate this denial. Some of them know better; they are that evil. Others do not; they are that stupid. It’s hard to know who is which, and it does not much matter, since either group is happy to join the kind of pressure campaign that led to the board’s abominable decision.
The New York Times and The Washington Post have covered the story, and the backlash has been swift: The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education has weighed in; an excellent faculty letter has been circulated. But neither stresses forcefully enough the other central aspect of this event: The campus’s Board of Trustees should not have any role in academic-hiring decisions whatsoever, and neither should the systemwide Board of Governors, which was lobbied to prevent Hannah-Jones’s appointment. It is reasonable to suppose that the governors passed on the pressure to the Board of Trustees. The Board of Governors’ chair, Randall C. Ramsey, builds and sells boats. The vice chair, Wendy Floyd Murphy, “is involved in the hospitality segment.” Most other members are equally unqualified to judge any tenure case in any field. The same is true for the Board of Trustees: The chair, Richard Y. Stevens, is a corporate lawyer and former GOP state senator. The vice chair, R. Gene Davis Jr., is another corporate lawyer, with “experience in real-estate law, business formation, estate planning, and estate administration.”
There is no greater threat to the future of the university than the continuing erosion of self-governance, the core organizational principle of higher education for centuries, and the reason universities are among the most stable civic institutions in the world. It is bad enough that university administrators have steadily erased the power of faculty governance and that many of them can barely be bothered to acknowledge who actually carries out the core mission of the university, i.e., the creation and dissemination of knowledge. But at least they are usually former researchers themselves, and they understand that the merit of a scholar’s work cannot be judged by a boat salesman, however fine a human being that boat salesman may be. (To be clear, I am not suggesting that the boat salesman in question is a fine human being.)
The right understands this. As NC Policy Watch reported, “Last week, a columnist for the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal (formerly known as the Pope Center for Higher Education) wrote that UNC-Chapel Hill’s Board of Trustees must prevent Hannah-Jones’s hiring. If they were not willing to do so, the column said, the UNC Board of Governors should amend system policies to require every faculty hire to be vetted by each school’s Board of Trustees.” Given the combination of the Board of Governors’ politics with its utter lack of integrity, that would almost certainly mean the end not just of responsible historical research in the University of North Carolina system but also the end of climate science, environmental studies, poverty research, and any other investigation that undermines Republican fantasies about the world as it is and as it ought to be. It is nothing less than a blueprint to bring universities under the dominion of the right.
If we want higher education to survive this onslaught, which has been long in the making, we can no longer rely on petitions and letters, no matter how well crafted, how impeccably argued, how persuasive. Reason depends on recognition to exert its power, and this crowd will not grant recognition to reason. You cannot shame the shameless. Universities must seek to have their autonomy enshrined in law, ideally as constitutional amendments akin to the provisions that have protected the independence of the University of Michigan, Michigan State, and Wayne State since the 19th century: The Constitution establishes them as independent entities, and their regents, who stay out of the university’s academic affairs, are elected rather than appointed. The right has played a long game, and it is perilously close to winning it. Fury and disgust are good and appropriate; they are not sufficient.