Ta-Nehisi Coates. Henry Louis Gates, jr. Chris Paul. Joy Reid. Hundreds of Black American luminaries signed a letter denouncing UNC’s treatment of Nicole Hannah-Jones. The letter, issued to The Root, makes stark claims about UNC’s behavior. In conclusion the signatories write, “The University’s Board of Trustees has failed to uphold the first order values of academic freedom and the free exchange of ideas.” There are not many failures more damning and fundamental for a university to commit.
But that remarkable letter was just an especially pointed element of blowback to the Board of Trustee’s travesty of a decision. The word “travesty” was employed in an op-ed for the Chronicle of Higher Education written by Sean Wilentz, a distinguished Princeton historian and one of the 1619 Project’s harshest critics. This morning a symbolic 1,619 UNC alumni placed an advertisement in the pages of the News and Observer similarly decrying the treatment of Hannah-Jones. Notably, several signers of The Root letter were former UNC alumni and athletes, including Tar Heel legend George Lynch.
These critics are hardly left-wing social media warriors. Instead UNC faces a unified phalanx of opposition from some of the most accomplished scholars, athletes, artists, and social-justice figures–many of them African American–in this country. The Board of Trustees has brought upon the university an avalanche of criticism that only the most hardened right-winger could fail to appreciate as damning. UNC’s reputation will decline further as a result.
In this right-wing era in North Carolina, onslaughts of national criticism have become routine. The state has largely been a laughingstock for ten years, and despite Roy Cooper’s heroic efforts to reverse the trend, UNC’s Board of Trustees has returned us to pariah status. Not since HB2–and it is hardly a coincidence that the intervening somewhat placid years have taken place under a progressive governor–has North Carolina taken such devastating body blows. The systematic takeover of every public institution in North Carolina by right-wing Republicans has destroyed the Tar Heel state’s standing in the community of social respect.
The fate of UNC-Chapel is inextricable, “bound by organic filament,” in literary critic Lionel Trilling’s phrase, to the general welfare of this state. When reactionary forces have targeted the university, the ramifications of their assaults have not been confined to the border’s of Chapel Hill. With the ongoing assault on UNC will come a long-term diminution of the state’s ability to attract great minds. UNC is supposed to be the state’s crown jewel. Who would want to wear a crown encrusted with tarnished gems?
Alexander Jones is an original contributor to PoliticsNC.