Grant Tenure to Nikole Hanna-Jones

Buck Goldstein
Entrepreneur in Residence and Professor of the Practice UNC-Chapel Hill

I’m not in the habit of giving advice to the UNC Board of Trustees. Many of them are personal friends and I know they have a tough job. But the current controversy over granting tenure to Nikole Hannah-Jones is potentially more impactful than the Silent Sam matter or even the Speaker Ban controversy of 1963, where the state legislature, egged on by a TV news commentator named Jesse Helms, banned communists from speaking on the UNC campus. (Helms also suggested that a fence be placed around Chapel Hill so that it could be designated as the state zoo.) At the same time, the solution is not complicated. In fact, it is obvious. Events of the last 10 days have demonstrated there is no defensible rationale for denying NH-J tenure and to do so would cause irreparable damage to America’s first public university. Failure to grant tenure flies in the face of long-established cultural norms and calls into question the commitment of the trustees to the most fundamental principles of academic freedom and shared governance. 

The case for tenure has become front-page news and remains in the daily news cycle as of Memorial Day. NH-J has been hired to teach journalism and is set to begin July 1. She currently works for The New York Times, the nation’s newspaper of record. She is a Pulitzer Prize winner and a recipient of a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship. She has a master’s degree in journalism from UNC and is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. She has been appointed to a Knight Chair in the Hussman School of Journalism and Media but without tenure. Previous holders of Knight chairs all were granted tenure. Most importantly, the HN-J appointment was vetted through all appropriate university committees and her application for a tenured professorship was delivered to the Trustees, after a request for clarification, in accordance with university procedures.  Faculty members with deep historical knowledge have stated that no one can remember the Board of Trustees rejecting a faculty recommendation once it has complied with all procedures and has been sent by the provost for final approval by the trustees.

Events of the last week make clear that rejecting the faculty recommendation, in addition to being unsupportable, is a fool’s errand. Under normal circumstances, denying tenure to any applicant so well qualified would result in some level of controversy and discontent but it would likely fade away after a week or two. Until two weeks ago, most Americans had not even heard of academic tenure. But denying tenure to a black, female award-winning journalist whose enraged professional colleagues get to tell the story, is a fight the trustees have no hope of winning. Moreover, like the Silent Sam controversy, the coverage will continue so long as the matter remains unresolved. As an example, late last week, an infographic illustrating the number of black women at UNC and in higher education generally with tenure was published and, of course, the number was scandalously small. Similar stories will enter the public narrative until the controversy is resolved.
But a hint of the most damaging result of prolonging the tenure controversy is the letter from HN-J’s attorneys warning of a potential lawsuit. Board members who are unpersuaded by NH-J’s credentials or the principles of academic freedom and shared governance must ask themselves if denying tenure is worth risking the national and international reputation of a great university. Extended litigation involving the culture wars that have enveloped the university for generations can do nothing but harm to an institution the trustees have been entrusted to protect.  It is hard to imagine any trustee would voluntarily lead the university down that road.

As the difficulties facing the BOT surfaced last week, the path to resolving the controversy became clearer. First, unlike the Speaker Ban and confederate monument issue, there is no state statute mandating or constraining board action. Second, there is no impediment from the Board of Governors that manages North Carolina’s university system. The President of that body, Peter Hans, made clear that tenure decisions are campus matters, not ones where the university system will become involved. Third, two stakeholders, Walter Hussman, for whom the journalism school is named, and Phil Berger, the powerful Republican leader of the North Carolina Senate, made clear they had no intention of interfering in university procedures regarding tenure. Hussman seemed to go out of his way, in an interview with the Raleigh News and Observer, to defer to the faculty on matters of tenure. “I don’t think donors should have a say in who gets hired or who gets terminated in the faculty,” Hussman said, “And I don’t think any university worth its salt should allow that.”

Berger’s public statements suggest he will not attempt to intervene in a decision made by the Board of Trustees. Last, and perhaps most importantly, NH-J has the support of the faculty, the provost, and the chancellor.  One faculty member told me she has never seen the faculty so galvanized around a single issue.
In the next week, we should get clarity on the likelihood of resolving the tenure controversy amicably without further damage to the university. Fortunately, there is a clear path toward resolution. The UNC Board of Trustees can defer to the faculty and established norms, just as they have consistently done in the past, and approve the tenure submission. In doing so, they will place themselves squarely behind the basic principles of academic freedom and shared governance and reaffirm that UNC intends to remain one of the nation’s great universities.


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