Academic Tenure Is Broken. Nikole Hannah-Jones’s Case Makes That ClearRoundup
tags: tenure, 1619 Project, academic labor, Nikole Hannah-Jones
William Egginton is the Decker Professor in the Humanities and director of the Alexander Grass Humanities Institute at Johns Hopkins University. His most recent book is The Splintering of the American Mind.
Nikole Hannah-Jones is a renowned journalist, recipient of a MacArthur fellowship, and a winner of the Pulitzer Prize for journalism. Barely a month ago, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill announced to much fanfare that she had been appointed to the Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism in the Hussman School of Journalism and Media. That fanfare dissolved into jarring dissonance last Wednesday when the university’s board of trustees took the highly unusual step of overturning the Hussman School’s request that she be appointed with tenure, as past holders of the Knight Chair had been.
UNC’s academic community, in response, has publicly criticized the board of trustees, which is appointed by the majority-Republican state legislature, for having allowed political influence to interfere with academic processes in a way that, according to a letter signed by many of the journalism school’s professors, “unfairly moves the goal posts and violates long-standing norms and established processes.” Hannah-Jones’s work, in particular the 1619 Project for The New York Times Magazine, which won the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for journalism, had become a lightning rod for conservatives for its portrayal of slavery as a foundational element of the American state. Former President Trump even argued in a press conference that the project was unpatriotic.
It’s pretty hard to escape the opinion that the decision to overturn the school’s recommendation was indeed influenced by politics. But there’s also another issue in danger of being overlooked: namely, that the very “long-standing norms and established processes” that the UNC journalism faculty rightly complained were being violated are themselves egregiously vulnerable to abuse. These norms protect entrenched inequalities and privileges, and tend to reproduce in an academic microcosm the demographic divisions that have left our society grappling with the generational effects of intractable inequality.
The political hit job on Hannah-Jones’s tenure case is an instance of saying the quiet parts out loud. While we should decry the move itself and its damage to a justly decorated public intellectual, we should also pay attention to how the very institution of tenure now serves to exclude—and to ensure the continued marginalization of—large sectors of our society.
The idea of tenure is quite simple. The job of professors is to strive for truth, and this pursuit needs to be free of the influence of politics, money, or the fear of losing one’s livelihood. In practice, the institution has fallen a good sight from this noble ideal. Today the majority of those teaching at colleges and universities aren’t even eligible for tenure. Rather, the academic apparatus is upheld by an army of adjuncts given very little pay, no job security, and a great deal of work, often requiring that they shuttle between campuses or even pick up and move at the end of each year.
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