Of all the damage that Republicans have done to North Carolina over the past decade, diminishing the University of North Carolina is the greatest. The system has been a driver of our state’s reputation as a place that values learning and promotes research and development. It not only attracted industry, it attracted prominent people from across the country. Now, we’ve been snubbed by Pulitzer Prize winner Nikole Hannah-Jones after she was initially snubbed by the GOP. 

Hannah-Jones announced this morning that she’s not coming to UNC. Instead, she’s taking another tenured position at Howard University “where the Knight Foundation has established an endowed professorship in Race and Journalism for her,” according to Policy Watch. Howard’s gain is UNC’s loss. It’s also another embarrassment for the state at the hands of Republicans. 

The incident just highlights, again, how the GOP has politicized our university system, trying to micromanage our schools to the detriment of our national reputation. As Hannah-Jones pointed out, UNC’s leadership was almost silent on the issue. Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz clearly wanted to avoid confrontations with the UNC Board of Trustees and the GOP leadership that backs them. He was stuck between doing the right thing in standing up for Hannah-Jones and risking funding for the school he oversees. He made the wrong choice.

Republicans will cheer Hannah-Jones’ decision. In their view, universities are already bastions of liberalism, attacking traditional values and introducing anti-American ideas. They also see the media as the enemy and Hannah-Jones is a journalist, making her even more of a threat to the view of life they want to protect. The good-riddance crowd will be loud on social media today. 

But Hannah-Jones has won this battle. Her reputation was already among the most prestigious among journalists. Now, she’s becoming a household name. As she moves to Howard, she’s taking money with her. According to Policy Watch, she’s already secured almost $20 million for a new Center for Journalism and Democracy at Howard. She plans to match the $25 million that Walter Hussman gave to the UNC School of Journalism and which Hussman believed gave him influence over the university’s hires. 

Conservatives desperately want to hang on a the white-washed version of American history and society that is under intense scrutiny as those who never enjoyed their privilege gain influence and power in our diversifying nation. Hannah-Jones is the embodiment of that threat to their sense of national identity. She has had the audacity to question the origin story that shaped their view of themselves and the country. Those conservatives will cheer her rejection of UNC. 

The dispute over Hannah-Jones’ tenure and place at UNC is a microcosm of the larger cultural debate that’s happening nationally. The same people who want to protect Confederate statues on public property, saw the George Floyd protests as riots, and now are screaming about Critical Race Theory are the ones who would deny tenure to a Black woman who has won virtually every journalistic award in the country. It’s a fight over our changing national identity and coming to terms with our failings to live up to the ideals on which the country was founded. Conservatives who cheer today will find themselves left behind by the country and broader culture tomorrow–and they will hold back the University of North Carolina with them if they get their way.

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