We Have Criticized Nikole Hannah-Jones. Her Tenure Denial Is a TravestyRoundup
tags: University of North Carolina, academic freedom, tenure, 1619 Project, Nikole Hannah-Jones
Keith E. Whittington is a professor of politics at Princeton University and the chair of the Academic Committee of the Academic Freedom Alliance.
Sean Wilentz is a professor of history at Princeton University.
Today’s rampant political polarization has led to alarming interference in academic affairs, threatening basic principles of openness and faculty authority in colleges and universities — principles hard won over the course of the last century. Most recently, the University of North Carolina Board of Trustees has apparently balked at the recommendation that Nikole Hannah-Jones be appointed with tenure to the Knight chair in race and investigative journalism. She will instead hold the chair for a five-year term.
The board has said little about the decision, but it would appear that political considerations drove them to take the extraordinary step of intervening in the university’s hiring decision for an individual faculty position. Such an action would be a gross violation of the principles that ought to guide the governance of modern American universities and a clear threat to academic freedom. Unfortunately, the temptation for political tampering with the operation of universities is growing not just in North Carolina but across the country.
The final step in the process of making an appointment to the faculty of public and private universities alike routinely involves the approval of a board of trustees. At public universities, boards are often politically appointed, as is true at the University of North Carolina. At private universities, they are generally dominated by generous alumni and donors. There was a time when such boards regularly exercised real power over the hiring and firing of members of the faculty, and the tenure of faculty members was dependent on staying in the good graces of the political factions and personal interests of powerful board members. The long fight for academic freedom necessitated insulating the faculty from the board. Boards retain the power to approve of faculty-hiring decisions in the same way that the queen of England retains the power to approve legislation passed by Parliament — as a ceremonial formality only.
There are, no doubt, reasons to object to awarding a tenured position on the faculty to Hannah-Jones, in which scholarship and qualifications are the primary considerations. The substance of her work on “The 1619 Project” is controversial. So is her choice to sometimes dismiss and demean her critics instead of engaging with their arguments on the merits. But faculty members must judge, on their own, the quality of a candidate’s actual work, as well as decide whether the candidate will in good faith enter into the spirit of reasoned, fair, and open-minded exchange. That determination is the faculty’s to make.
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