She has no doctoral degree. She has no scholarship. She has no pedagogical experience to speak of. What she does have is a Pulitzer Prize and a MacArthur Genius grant, which is a pretty big deal, but not particularly relevant to academia. So why was the “creater” of the 1619 Project at the New York Times, Nikole Hannah-Jones, not given tenure by the University of North Carolina?
This raised some serious questions.
Nearly 40 faculty members from the journalism school signed an online statement on Wednesday calling for the decision to be reversed, saying the failure to grant tenure to Ms. Hannah-Jones “unfairly moves the goal posts and violates longstanding norms and established processes.” The statement added, “This failure is especially disheartening because it occurred despite the support for Hannah-Jones’s appointment as a full professor with tenure by the Hussman dean, Hussman faculty and university.”
The faculty voted to grant her tenure. The dean and provost supported the decision. Yet, the decision required the approval of the Board of Trustees.
The website NC Policy Watch reported on Wednesday that U.N.C.’s board of trustees had declined to approve Ms. Hannah-Jones’s application for tenure. A spokeswoman for the university, Joanne Peters Denny, said in a statement that “details of individual faculty hiring processes are personnel protected information.”
Why? The problem in this particular instance was muddied by the controversy surrounding, and to a large extent, caused by Hannah-Jones. Was tenure denied because of her controversial politics, her claim that the United States of America existed for the primary purpose of slavery? If so, then it raises significant issues of academic freedom, regardless of the absence of academic rigor to her views.
On the other hand, there are reasons that distinguish granting Hannah-Jones tenure from others in academia.
If a reaction to her politics, that’s a problem. If it was a reaction to her lack of a Ph.D., scholarship or pedagogical experience, and the faculty vote was in deference to her politics, prominence and awards despite having no qualifications, that’s a different problem.
What were the chances that the UNC faculty would vote against giving someone with the ideological prominence of Hannah-Jones tenure, and be branded racist across the academic, social media and progressive universe? This isn’t to suggest they were insincere in their vote, as it would surprise no one to learn that they truly shared her passionate, if ahistorical, reimagination of America. This would hardly be the first time scholarly rigor gave way to ideological adoration, and to the woke, Hannah-Jones was a star and a pretty huge “get” for UNC’s Hussman School of Journalism and Media.
In the April announcement, the dean of the journalism school, Susan King, said: “Now one of the most respected investigative journalists in America will be working with our students on projects that will move their careers forward and ignite critically important conversations.”
Whether you would agree with the description of Hannah-Jones as “one of the most respected investigative journalists in America” isn’t the point. She is, undoubtedly, a “big deal” journalist. She has a Pulitzer. You don’t. I don’t.
But aside from having essentially no academic qualifications, should her journalistic prominence suffice to grant her tenure? As it turns out, that may not be the right question at all.
The intent of the Knight program is to bring nationally known professionals to campuses. The previous two Knight chairs hired at UNC (Penny Abernathy and JoAnn Sciarrino) did not have a Ph.D. or significant teaching experience. Each was granted tenure on appointment.
In other words, the choice of Nikole Hannah-Jones as a Knight chair professor was where the real issue resided. There have been two Knight chairs in the past, Penny Abernathy and JoAnn Sciarrino, and both were given tenure with their appointment. Nobody said “boo” about it, and it was both wholly uncontroversial and created the precedent that the chair came with the grant. Then again, tenure was not an inherent part of the gig.
Alberto Ibargüen, the president of Knight Foundation, said that while the foundation funds the Knight Chair position at U.N.C., it has no role in appointments. The agreement calls for a five-year appointment, with tenure review within that period, he said.
“It is not our place to tell U.N.C. or U.N.C./Hussman who they should appoint or give tenure to,” Mr. Ibargüen said in a statement. “It is, however, clear to us that Hannah-Jones is eminently qualified for the appointment and we would urge the trustees of the University of North Carolina to reconsider their decision within the time frame of our agreement.”
As much as Hannah-Jones’ claim to fame is exceptionally controversial, and in the eyes of actual academics, the antithesis of scholarly rigor, the fact remains that she was appointed to the Knight chair at UNC and that in the normal course, the holders of the Knight chair were granted tenure upon appointment.
This certainly makes the Board of Trustees’ denial of tenure emit an unpleasant odor of viewpoint discrimination.
That the two previous Knight chairs were granted tenure establishes a precedent that gives rise to a presumption of impropriety. No, precedent is not inviolate, and there may well be distinctions to justify treating Hannah-Jones differently than her predecessors. But the prior Knight chairs weren’t Ph.D.s either. They had no academic experience to speak of. And while they had established their prominence in journalism, they have no peer-reviewed scholarship behind them.
Perhaps the distinction is that Hannah-Jones, unlike her predecessors, enjoyed prominence, not to mention some pretty cool awards, not so much for her work as a journalist as for her manufacture of an unscholarly, ahistorial reinvention of history to suit an ideology. But if so, is that not the very viewpoint discrimination that should not influence a tenure decision? And more to the point, they knew this about her before she was appointed, yet appointed her anyway. Nikole Hannah-Jones may not be your choice for Knight chair or mine, but she was the choice of UNC. Having made that choice, it’s hard to explain why tenure didn’t come with it.