Tenure at American universities is not given. It’s earned. Those of us fortunate enough to have had a shot at earning it understand all too well the effort it takes to earn tenure, the costs of failing and privilege it conveys.
It’s very difficult to fire us for researching, teaching and professing heterodox ideas. We tenured professors have something only federal judges share with us – the confidence to speak and write our minds, knowing that society has granted us the security to do so because we have worked so hard to earn it. We are guaranteed due process if the powerful try to dispose of us. That’s what makes American research universities so great. It’s why free, open, bold minds thrive in them.
If you are a prominent Black woman, there is no guarantee that the process of evaluation for tenure will be conducted fairly. There are too many interests stacked against you to trust it will go smoothly.
When the prestigious Hussman School of Journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill – the oldest public university in North America – went searching for a Knight chair – funded by the Knight Foundation to promote journalism education by putting some of America’s finest practicing journalists in the classroom – a distinguished alumna of that school was the obvious choice.
Nikole Hannah-Jones is just such an alumna and just such a journalist.
It did not turn out as planned. On Tuesday we learned that conservative activists on the University of North Carolina board of trustees took the unprecedented step of withholding tenure from Hannah-Jones’ appointment as the next Knight chair. All the previous Knight chairs at the university had been hired with tenure. All the previous Knight chairs at North Carolina were white.
Unlike her white predecessors, Hannah-Jones will be offered a five-year term without tenure. This was a clear slap at her race, gender, prominence and mostly her unwillingness to bow to critics. It denied her something she earned through hard work and years of practice. And it was a decision made without serious consideration of her contributions to the field.
Hannah-Jones is exactly the sort of person one should want in a classroom, guiding students through the process of investigation, research, writing and publication. We should all want journalists of the future to be as widely read, as hard-working, and as bold as Hannah-Jones is. Even adults in college and graduate school learn best by emulating those they respect and can watch wield their craft.
Over a career spanning 20 years, Hannah-Jones has won a National Magazine award, a Polk award, a Pulitzer prize and a MacArthur grant. Hannah-Jones was elected in 2021 to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences – one of top honors a writer may achieve in America. Among other subjects Hannah-Jones has covered public education, demographics, Cuba and civil rights.