The UNC Board of Trustees is meeting this morning to consider tenure for Nikole Hannah-Jones. They have a chance to get it right this time. Let’s hope they do. 

Hannah-Jones was initially not considered for tenure for political reasons. Republicans hate her 1619 Project that asserts slavery and its associated racism was a central feature in the founding of this nation. Agree or not, she brings a legitimate perspective and one hell of a resume.

Before the 1619 Project, for which she won a Pulitzer Prize, Hannah-Jones was a MacArthur Fellow, a Peabody award winner, and the recipient of too many journalism awards to list here. She was also a graduate of UNC School of Journalism and Media. When she was named the Knight Chair, tenure should have followed, as recommended by the faculty at UNC. 

Instead, the Board of Trustees decided not to consider tenure at all, a decision that was unprecedented and an obvious slap at Hannah-Jones. David Boardman, Chair of the Lenfest Institute for Journalism and Dean of Temple University’s Klein College of Media and Journalism, summed up the problem in a series of tweets. 

“1) @nhannahjones‘ predecessors in the Knight Chair at @UNC were hired WITH tenure, though none had more impressive CVs than she does; 2) the Board of Trustees went against the positive assessment of the faculty, dean and provost, which is unheard of; and 3) The reasons for refusing to grant tenure were purely political, clearly influenced by Walter Hussman. The central issue is NOT tenure/no tenure, per se. It’s everything surrounding it.”

And everything surrounding it has to do with the micromanaging and petty politics that has marred the entire university system since the GOP took power. They aren’t just willing to disagree with Hannah-Jones’ perspective, one shared by a lot of very smart people, they felt the need to discredit it by denying her the tenure offered to those who came before her. It was meant as an insult, one that almost certainly came with pressure from people outside the Board of Trustees. 

An almost all White Board of Trustees overriding the recommendation of the faculty and denying tenure to one of the country’s most accomplished African American journalists did more to harm the reputation of university than it did to harm the reputation of Hannah-Jones or the 1619 Project. The action is reminiscent of the UNC Board of Governors firing Tom Ross, the highly competent and respected UNC President, because of his political registration. After that, they couldn’t even keep their own hire on board when they ran off former US Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings because of their meddling and micromanagement. Instead, we have settled for mediocrity.  

I’m not sure the Board of Trustees can really redeem itself today, but it can do the right thing. They can award Hannah-Jones tenure and then apologize for embarrassing the state once again. That last part is almost certainly too much to ask. Republicans have shown little awareness or concern for the damage they’ve done to the reputation of our university or our state. Don’t expect them to start now.

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