University of North Carolina tenure debate for Nikole Hannah-Jones goes beyond academia

At the heart of the issue is a legitimate debate about her assertion that the Revolutionary War was fought largely to prevent the abolition of slavery in the 13 colonies.

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Nikole Hannah-Jones

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As a onetime academic, I’ve always been of two minds about the institution of tenure.

In theory, it protects intellectual freedom. In practice, however, junior faculty become so accustomed to keeping their heads down seeking a lifetime sinecure that timidity becomes second nature. They confine their heterodox opinions to the faculty lounge.

So I’m puzzled that a nationally famous journalist like The New York Times’ Nikole Hannah-Jones thinks she needs it. The hullaballoo at the University of North Carolina, provoked by its Board of Trustees declining to include tenure in its offer of a 5-year, $180,000 per annum contract, has become a symbolic struggle on depressingly familiar racial terms. I quite doubt she intends to make a career in Chapel Hill.

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Sometimes, however, symbolic struggles are worth having. But do spare me the high-flown rhetoric about UNC’s inviolable academic standards. This is the school whose department of African and Afro-American Studies got caught awarding phantom “A” grades to varsity athletes for classes that never met. Literally did not exist.

The scam involved some 3000 students over two decades. Supposedly, UNC’s football and basketball coaches knew nothing.

Sure they didn’t.

But back to today’s racial controversy. Nikole Hannah-Jones, of course, is the author of the Times’s celebrated and controversial “The 1619 Project” — an ambitious attempt to reassess American history through the shame of slavery.

It’s UNC’s Hussman School of Journalism that has offered her the job. And that, in turn, has drawn the interest of Arkansas Democrat-Gazette publisher Walter Hussman, the school’s namesake, whose $20 million gift to his alma mater ensures that his phone calls and emails will always be answered.

Three big things trouble Hussman about “The 1619 Project.” First, its monthly magazine-style blend of fact and opinion, which the publisher finds unseemly. But that ship has sailed. Times readers know what they’re getting. More substantively, Hussman objects to what serious historians have called into question about the work: its assertion that the Revolutionary War was fought largely to prevent the abolition of slavery in the 13 colonies.

According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, Hussman was greatly influenced by a Politico column by Northwestern professor Leslie M. Harris headlined “I Helped Fact-Check the 1619 Project. The Times Ignored Me.” Harris had warned that the insupportable claim would give critics an excuse to disregard an otherwise important work, which is “exactly what happened.”

But should a piece of journalism whose headline allegation is somewhere between dubious and downright false be lionized? OK, so Hannah-Jones has earned a Pulitzer Prize. But would she be offered tenure in a first-rate history department? Probably not.

Princeton historian Sean Wilentz, who has publicly criticized her work, put it this way: “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.”

All too often, it goes like this:

”You’re wrong.”

”You’re white.”

The End.

Wilentz nevertheless emphasizes that the decision is the UNC faculty’s to make, not politically appointed trustees or alumni donors.

If Hannah-Jones has become a partisan lighting rod, it’s a role she’s clearly chosen. And yes, it’s all about race.

As for mega-donor Hussman, he’s found himself pillored in Slate as “a mini-Rupert Murdoch,” which is surely unfair to anybody familiar with the newspapers he publishes. The Democrat-Gazette’s news coverage is vastly superior to any newspaper in the region, and Hussman has risked a lot by offering iPad subscriptions (complete with iPads) to cut printing costs.

I wrote a column there myself during the Clinton and George W. Bush years. Although I’m confident Hussman disagreed with most of my opinions, he never interfered. When the publisher says he resents Hannah-Jones’ assertion that “Black Americans fought back alone,” he’s thinking about white Arkansas journalists who risked everything (and won Pulitzer Prizes) championing racial justice from the 1957 Central High integration crisis onward.

One of those journalists, the late Paul Greenberg, edited the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. We didn’t agree about much else, but Greenberg stood strong for racial justice at a time when it could get a man killed.

Indeed, he was the editor and Hussman the publisher when I was unceremoniously dumped from a half-time teaching job after several columns lampooning the propaganda barrage used to sell the Iraq war.

“This isn’t conservatism,” I’d written. “It’s utopian folly and a prescription for endless war.” The dean said the college had no funds to pay me, transparently false. I’d taken the job to help the college out of a tight spot after a senior professor fell ill. Colleagues pretended they didn’t know I’d been sent away. Students were told I’d resigned.

You see, I didn’t have tenure.

Gene Lyons is a columnist for the Arkansas Times.

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