Nikole Hannah-Jones gets a Seat at the Table. Maybe. For Now.

By Adam Katz

Nikole Hannah-Jones; Photo courtesy of the New York Post

When did we become a news site?

We didn’t, but there will occasionally (read: no more than once every 10 minutes) be an item in the news that bothers us so much we have to talk about it (or boost the signal of people who are already talking about it). This will especially be true if we feel we have something unique and legitimate to say.

So.

The 1619 Project, in addition to being a massive effort of journalism and scholarship, was a serious headline grabber in the last couple years. Despite inevitable arguments in a project this big, it isn’t so much controversial as it is a target for people who do not want to acknowledge the role of white supremacy in US history. And yes, there are legitimate disagreements; whether or not the United States needs to reckon with its collective guilt and trauma concerning slavery and racism is not one of the legitimate disagreements. Such efforts are long overdue.

The 1619 Project was championed by a New York Times journalist named Nikole Hannah-Jones, who is now being offered a professorship at the University of North Carolina, despite the fact that she does not have a PhD. She does have a Pulitzer and a MacArthur Fellowship. This is huge, on its face. There were very few BIPOC faces at my graduate English department. We have interviewed a single Black person at the Ivory Tower Boiler Room. It’s a failing we expect to correct sooner rather than later, but a failing nonetheless. Academia has a problem with recruiting Black people, and if universities are to increase the ratio of  Black people with professorships, they may need to recognize that there is a roadblock somewhere up the road; that Black people in particular are not finding their way to, or through, the PhD programs, and that diversifying the faculty, not only racially but economically, may involve hiring non-PhDs to professorships, including to prestigious professorships like the one in question.

Hannah-Jones was recruited by the University North Carolina (April 2021) to be the Knight Chair Professor of Race and Investigative Journalism. As a professor, having a chair with a name on it is huge.

Now the bad news. Hannah-Jones was not offered tenure, despite the fact that previous holders of the Knight Chair were given tenure. One might argue that because she does not hold a PhD, the university needs a ripcord in case the relationship does not work out. But the faculty of the Journalism School did not seem to think so. In any case, if she were such an X-factor, they would not have offered her one of the biggest plums a university is capable of offering. 

The actual text of the Washington Post article makes for fascinating reading, if you’ll spare me a moment’s indulgence:

“On Thursday afternoon, board chair Richard Y. Stevens told reporters in a videoconference session that trustee Charles G. “Chuck” Duckett had raised questions to the UNC provost in advance of a January meeting about a proposal to grant tenure to Hannah-Jones. Duckett chairs a committee with oversight of university affairs.

“Stevens did not elaborate much on what the questions were, but he said it is not unusual for trustees to probe further, “particularly candidates that don’t come from a traditional academic-type background.” Stevens said Duckett suggested postponing the proposal to allow time to consider the issues.

“The result, Stevens said, was that the matter never came to a vote. Top university officials did not present “any recommendation on this appointment to the board, nor did the board take any action on this appointment,” Stevens said. “Let me stress that.”

“Stevens insisted that the board had not denied Hannah-Jones tenure. “That did not take place,” he said.

“University officials instead pursued an alternative plan that did not require board approval: Hannah-Jones was offered, and accepted, a five-year contract without tenure. Susan King, dean of the journalism school, wrote in an email to her faculty on Sunday that Hannah-Jones would have an option to be reviewed for tenure within five years.”

What I get from this parade of opaque language is that the board of trustees was not going to sign off on the appointment but they also did not want to be seen not signing off on the appointment because that would have caused backlash (which this did anyway because people can read between the lines). So the hiring committee found a way to back-channel her appointment, but in doing so could only offer a five-year contract, tenure-free. If I had to guess: the board of trustees was a hung jury, if you’ll pardon the expression, with perhaps one holdout saying he was going to be goddamned if that woman was going to get a professorship at his university. Or something like that. The only reason I can conceive of for a public institution like UNC not to publish its rationale concerning such a massive PR fumble like this is if the rationale is worse than the speculation.

It is possible that they are afraid a woman who did not come up through the usual channels and is not beholden to the university system for her livelihood and sense of self-worth will actually use the protections of tenure as they are allegedly meant to be used–for speaking truth to power. But in such a case, the lack of tenure would be a poor tool for bridling her brashness. A professor who came up through the ranks can’t afford to get fired, because where would they go? She, with her connections to the New York Times, her name-recognition, her MacArthur money, can afford to throw her weight around–even without tenure–more than most professors with tenure ever do.

Some of the chatter is saying that she is not receiving tenure because she is Black, which is a possible factor, no doubt. It wouldn’t be the first time a Black woman was denied job security.

The strongest possibility to my admittedly outsider perspective is that she is not the X-factor; everyone else is. She is being promoted to this grand platform at a university on the basis of her work with the 1619 Project, which is itself a political target (again, it’s not controversial; something is only really controversial if the opposing arguments have merit and we would all do well to remember that people who are disagreeing, however fundamentally,with the facts as 1619 Project presents them are not opposing the project as a whole). The University is therefore afraid that her infamy among conservative race-baiters will blow up in all their faces. In which case, they would naturally be expected to shield her from the worst of it so she can keep doing the threefold work of mining the vein of her own research, hosting educational events, and teaching her students to be the investigative journalists of tomorrow. But large, self-protecting institutions aren’t great at taking the moral high ground. So they see ‘controversy’ where a private (and reasonable) person would see bullying and hectoring and meretricious gotcha-ing.

The final stop on this train is the opaque system of governance at universities. The board of trustees of the university did not accept the recommendation of the journalism faculty. Why? It’s not a good look that they didn’t. If the university would aspire to a single iota of institutional transparency in a matter like this then we would not be having this conversation—guessing back and forth about whether their motivations are racist, self-serving, cowardly, or merely all three. It’s one thing when a celebrity lives a private life and wants to keep the reporters away from it. But a university is not a person and does not deserve privacy. And Hannah-Jones should still take the post, because a seat at the table is a seat at the table. I hope she takes the job and I hope she brings all the fireworks they fear, and they still can’t pull that ripcord, because doing so would expose them as bad-faith actors.

Update: Nikole Hannah Jones has been pushed through the tenure process, in part by her own credentials, but in a large part because the uproar over one trustee’s decision to deny her tenure appears to have forced the board’s hand. So where do we go from here? The issue in this debate was always the outsized influence a single board of trustees member had over the tenure process. Let us take a moment to remember:

-Boards of Trustees are made up of wealthy people, regardless of their other academic credentials. In this case, Hussman is a newspaper publisher, which does not mean his concerns are the same as those of a reporter.

-Despite their lack of academic credentials, the board of trustees–in this case, a single board member–had the power to overrule every academic vote in favor of Jones’s tenure.

-Clearly the next great overhaul in the teaching of American history needs to concern itself with the Venn-diagramatic influence of money and race in the founding and running of impartial institutions like colleges… and journalistic venues. That will probably not go over any better with the board of trustees, but it is still work worth doing.

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