When the UNC Board of Trustees initially refused to consider tenure for Nikole Hannah-Jones, they laid bare the GOP’s tendency to politicize our university system. They ignored historical precedent and they rejected the recommendations of the faculty and administration of the School of Journalism and Mass Communication. They also largely dismissed the organizations that set the standards for journalism in the country. 

By the time she was tapped for a Knight Chair at UNC, Nikole Hannah-Jones had won virtually every prestigious award given to journalists. She won a Polk Award, a Peabody Award, and a Pulitzer Prize, as well as numerous others. She is recognized by her colleagues as one the country’s top investigative reporters and founded the Ida B. Wells Center for Investigative Journalism. Her work led to a McArthur Award, known as a “Genius Grant.” The Board of Trustees dismissed all of her accomplishments and all of her recommendations because her most famous work, the 1619 Project, is controversial and provocative.

The BOT wasn’t just taking a slap Nikole Hannah-Jones when they refused to consider tenure. They were dismissing all of the institutions that had recognized her work, many long before the 1619 Project was released. Conservatives have undertaken a multi-decade crusade to undermine authorities, many of which contradict their increasingly populist perspective. The people who claim to most revere protecting traditional values and institutions are the same ones tearing them down and attempting to replace them with more authoritarian, and less authoritative, bodies.

Conservatives have been attacking the news media since journalism exposed Richard Nixon. The term “liberal media” has long been commonplace and Republican operatives started Fox News to get their politicized view of current events into the public consciousness. They dismissed network news as skewed to the left and their relentless assault has made many Americans skeptical of all reporting except for stories that confirm their bias.  

Now, conservatives are turning up the heat on academia. They have almost as much disdain for researchers, especially in the social sciences and humanities, as they do for journalists. By nature, they don’t like a messy, controversial, and uncertain world and prefer tidy stories that reaffirm their traditionalist views. They assume that most academics bring a biased perspective to their research instead of considering that examinations of facts and research may lead academics to their conclusions. 

Just as North Carolina became ground zero for voter suppression laws, it’s becoming ground zero for the assault on knowledge and information. The Nikole Hannah-Jones episode is just the latest and highest profile example of politicians trying to remake our higher education system by reducing academic freedom. The Board of Governors fired President Tom Ross because of his political affiliation. They’ve chased off chancellors that didn’t toe the party line. They’ve even attacked and punished employees who dared to criticize the actions of the Boards of Governors and Trustees. They even meddled in student body president elections.

Emboldened by their actions and what they see as a success in keeping Hannah-Jones off the faculty, conservatives elsewhere are going on the offensive. In Virginia, they are attacking Larry Sabato, the noted political scientist, for his criticism of Trump. Their goal is to stifle dissent by discrediting people who have long been respected as experts and specialists. If they can cast enough doubt on the veracity of researchers and scholars, they can convince a whole segment of society to distrust all findings by institutions of higher learning. 

To hear conservatives tell it, the experts who once provided information and research are all biased against them. The news media and academics are not trustworthy. Prestigious organizations that help determine excellence are all part of a left-wing conspiracy to undermine conservatism. Instead, people should believe talk radio hosts and cable news stars to get their information and shape their opinions. They’ve discounted the possibility that the people who collect and examine facts could reach conclusions that contradict their world view.  

The goal appears to be to discredit experts and authorities. In doing so, they are tearing down the institutions that conservatives once defended. They claim that they’ve been corrupted, but nobody has corrupted them more than Republicans who rail about free speech while simultaneously squashing dissent. We’ve watched it first-hand in North Carolina. If history holds, we’ll see similar, and sometimes more drastic, behavior in other states. The ultimate goal is power based on misinformation because facts tend to get in the way of authoritarians.

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