It Can't Be Cancel-Culture Because Nikole Hannah-Jones Is Black And A Lady
Photo: Associação Brasileira de Jornalismo Investigativo, 2018, Creative Commons license 2.0

For all the blather we regularly hear from wingnuts who think that Twitter is violating the First Amendment (It can't! It's not the government!), the political Right has been awfully quiet about an actual case of a government entity interfering in an academic hire for political reasons. In April, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill proudly announced that its Hussman School of Journalism and Media would be hiring journalist (and UNC alum) Nikole Hannah-Jones for the university's prestigious Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism. The job traditionally comes with tenure, as a recognition of general outstandingness of achievement in the journalistic field.

Hannah-Jones has a long career in investigative journalism, and in 2019 made a huge splash in media and culture for organizing the New York Times Magazine's"1619 Project" and writing the lead essay for the project. That essay earned her the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, and the eternal hatred of rightwing media, because the 1619 Project suggested that American history should be viewed primarily through the lens of slavery and the oppression of Black people, when any white fool knows America is the best country ever, founded by God to eventually elect Ronald Reagan and Donald Trump.

So yeah, that's why Hannah-Jones was denied tenure. The UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees, after a lobbying campaign, refused to approve a tenure recommendation that had been approved at every level of UNC Chapel Hill's faculty and administration, effectively killing it. Oddly, Donald Trump Jr. hasn't said a word about out of control cancel culture.

Since the board's decision meant it couldn't offer Hannah-Jones tenure, UNC's Hussman School instead hired her for a five-year appointment as a "Professor of the Practice," with the option of considering her again for tenure at the end of the appointment. Maybe by then, the idiocy over the 1619 Project will have blown over. Or maybe universities will have been burned to the ground; times remain weird.

Susan King, the dean of the Hussman School, was certainly excited to make the announcement, saying Hannah-Jones's appointment was

the story of a leader returning to a place that transformed her life and career trajectory [...] Giving back is part of Nikole's DNA, and now one of the most respected investigative journalists in America will be working with our students on projects that will move their careers forward and ignite critically important conversations.

But any celebrations of what should have been a lifetime appointment were a bit premature, as NC Policy Watch explains.

Last summer, Hannah-Jones went through the rigorous tenure process at UNC, King said. Hannah-Jones submitted a package King said was as well reviewed as any King had ever seen. Hannah-Jones had enthusiastic support from faculty and the tenure committee, with the process going smoothly every step of the way — until it reached the UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees.

And that's where things fell apart, thanks to the rightwing outrage machine, which included pressure from groups affiliated with the UNC Board of Governors, which is controlled by the state legislature and in turn appoints each campus's board of trustees. Hey, forget Hannah-Jones's Pulitzer and her MacArthur Foundation "genius" grant, she said nasty accurate things about the Founders, and so she's dangerous. One conservative North Carolina group, the "Carolina Partnership for Reform," published an unsigned editorial complaining that "This lady is an activist reporter — not a teacher," and insisting, on the basis of pure paranoia, that students in her classes would be forced to accept her radical anti-American beliefs in order to even get a passing grade, because that's just how the Left is: "They can't get up and leave if they disagree. They must sit there and accept her beliefs if they're to get a good grade. Think about that."

Weirdly, an actual UNC J-school prof who invited Hannah-Jones to teach his feature writing class as part of her tenure evaluation didn't see anything of the sort. John Robinson said he thought she was "an excellent teacher," which for all we know means the wingnuttosphere will come gunning for him, too.

"She assigned the students a story to read and she engaged with students on what made the story work and what didn't work. Then she engaged with students about careers in journalism. She's a UNC alum, so that interests them."

Robinson described the class as just what a journalism course should be — a give and take, not a one-sided lecture.

"She pushed back on some of the students' opinions and they pushed back on hers," Robinson said. "It was a vibrant learning experience."

Aha, see! She did challenge their opinions, and Robinson probably covered up all the Marxist propaganda she no doubt insisted was better.

One anonymous member of the board, clearly disgusted by Hannah-Jones's treatment, told NC Policy Watch the Trustees had withheld approval of tenure for one reason only: "Politics." The board member also said that the Board of Governors had actively politicized university governance in North Carolina:

The Board of Governors has decided not to reappoint certain trustees they felt were not on the right ideological page, the trustee said, and have even engineered the ouster of chancellors with whom they disagreed. They have defunded academic centers and discontinued programs with which they were at political odds. Trustees across the system know that track record when they're making these kinds of decisions, the trustee said.

"This is a high profile hiring decision and the last thing anyone should want is us going to the Board of Governors with this and they disagree," the trustee said. "That is not going to be good for anybody. That is when negative things are going to happen."

Another trustee agreed, noting that some members of the board had made up specious reasons for denying tenure to Hannah-Jones. The Knight Chairs are funded by the Knight Foundation to give the nation's most important, accomplished journalists the chance to train future journalists. The chairs are by definition for working journalists. So of course the board pretended Hannah-Jones should be disqualified because she's not an academic:

"There was some discussion about 'She is not from a teaching background, she is not from academia, so how can she just get a tenured position?'" the trustee said. "But if you look at the previous Knight Chairs, if you look at Penny Abernathy for instance, these are people who come from the world of journalism. That's the idea. That's what the program is and it's always been that way. So that argument doesn't really hold water."

UNC faculty and students have protested the board's decision, calling for it to be reversed; an online statement by some 40 faculty members said that denying tenure due to political pressure was a dangerous precedent that "unfairly moves the goal posts and violates longstanding norms and established processes." The letter also said that, if anything, Hannah-Jones actually "surpasses expectations for a tenured position."

And what about the usual culture warriors who fret that cancel culture is out of control, and stifling freedom? Andrew Sullivan, who once demanded that Hannah-Jones disprove the stereotype that Black men have great big tonkers, explained on Twitter that the political intrusion into higher education wasn't the least bit scandalous. Hannah-Jones hadn't been "cancelled," you see, because she still got a five-year job, now didn't she?

Never mind that since 1980, Knight Chair appointments have always included tenure. She'll get another chance to prove that she deserves something that for all others is a matter of course, so don't you go saying she's been treated unfairly, because the real oppressors are people who think systemic racism exists, the end.

[NC Policy Watch / NYT / NC Policy Watch / Photo: Associação Brasileira de Jornalismo Investigativo, Creative Commons license 2.0]

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Doktor Zoom

Doktor Zoom's real name is Marty Kelley, and he lives in the wilds of Boise, Idaho. He is not a medical doctor, but does have a real PhD in Rhetoric. You should definitely donate some money to this little mommyblog where he has finally found acceptance and cat pictures. He is on maternity leave until 2033. Here is his Twitter, also. His quest to avoid prolixity is not going so great.


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