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The board has said little about the decision, but it would appear that political considerations drove them to take the extraordinary step of intervening in the university’s hiring decision for an individual faculty position. Such an action would be a gross violation of the principles that ought to guide the governance of modern American universities and a clear threat to academic freedom. Unfortunately, the temptation for political tampering with the operation of universities is growing not just in North Carolina but across the country.
The final step in the process of making an appointment to the faculty of public and private universities alike routinely involves the approval of a board of trustees. At public universities, boards are often politically appointed, as is true at the University of North Carolina. At private universities, they are generally dominated by generous alumni and donors. There was a time when such boards regularly exercised real power over the hiring and firing of members of the faculty, and the tenure of faculty members was dependent on staying in the good graces of the political factions and personal interests of powerful board members. The long fight for academic freedom necessitated insulating the faculty from the board. Boards retain the power to approve of faculty-hiring decisions in the same way that the queen of England retains the power to approve legislation passed by Parliament — as a ceremonial formality only.
There are, no doubt, reasons to object to awarding a tenured position on the faculty to Hannah-Jones, in which scholarship and qualifications are the primary considerations. The substance of her work on “The 1619 Project” is controversial. So is her choice to sometimes dismiss and demean her critics instead of engaging with their arguments on the merits. But faculty members must judge, on their own, the quality of a candidate’s actual work, as well as decide whether the candidate will in good faith enter into the spirit of reasoned, fair, and open-minded exchange. That determination is the faculty’s to make.
Some have suggested that, setting substantive issues aside, Hannah-Jones should not merit a tenured faculty appointment. She is a practicing journalist who has not held a university faculty position before. She does not have a Ph.D. Although she can boast of a Pulitzer Prize, she has not published in scholarly or peer-reviewed journals.
Such considerations might be weighty in some contexts, but have little significance here — and, again, are matters for the faculty to consider, not the Board of Trustees. Her appointment is to a journalism school, and many professional schools desire faculty members with practical experience rather than traditional academic accomplishments. The previous holders of the Knight chair have been working journalists. Assuming that a tenured appointment is in accord with the provisions of the chair in question, as well as the hiring rules of the journalism school, the decision must rest with the faculty.
If disagreements over whether an individual professor should be hired, promoted, or fired were resolved by boards, then the mission of the university would be corrupted. Public universities in red states and blue states alike would find themselves shrinking the acceptable range of scholarship and teaching. Faculty members at private universities would once again have to worry about whether their work might offend the moral sensibilities or economic interests of influential alumni, from any point on the ideological spectrum.
The sharp polarization of our politics threatens the foundations of teaching and scholarship, especially in areas of civics and American history. Efforts to create grounds where students can learn essential lessons about the structure of our constitutional government and the nation’s past run afoul of clashing, strident political agendas. It is against that deplorable background that the trustees of the University of North Carolina have blocked this appointment.
We have been critical of Hannah-Jones’s best-known work in connection with “The 1619 Project,” and we remain critical. We also respect the judgment and the authority of the University of North Carolina’s faculty and administration. For the Board of Trustees to interfere unilaterally on blatantly political grounds is an attack on the integrity of the very institution it oversees. The perception and reality of political intervention in matters of faculty hiring will do lasting damage to the reputation of higher education in North Carolina — and will embolden boards across the country similarly to interfere with academic operations of the universities that they oversee.