On May 19, NC Policy Watch reported Nikole Hannah-Jones, renowned journalist and UNC-Chapel Hill alumna, was denied tenureship by the UNC-Chapel Hill board of trustees. Instead of the career-long appointment provided by tenureship, Hannah-Jones was offered a five-year teaching contract with an option to redo the tenure process, despite glowing reviews from many of the Hussman School of Journalism’s faculty and administration. The decision follows months of conservative politicians denouncing Hannah-Jones’ leadership in the 1619 Project, which aims to critically reexamine the effects of slavery in the U.S.
Since the decision, a large number of individuals and organizations have released statements of solidarity against it, including the National Association of Black Journalists and UNC-Chapel Hill Student Body President Lamar Richards. But despite the near universal blowback from the trustees’ decision, Hannah-Jones’ tenureship is still up in the air, breaking what the UNC-Chapel Hill Faculty Executive Committee called “the long tradition of respect for recommendations from faculty bodies in hiring and tenure cases.”
We, the Technician editorial board, believe Hannah-Jones’ lack of tenureship reflects on the deeply rooted anti-Blackness found not only at UNC-Chapel Hill, but at every college institution across the state. The trustees’ decision reflects a corruption of academic and political freedom in North Carolina that must be reversed.
Across UNC-Chapel Hill’s past, there have been numerous instances of anti-Black rhetoric that display the university’s unwillingness to face its ineradicable history. Silent Sam, a bronze statue of a Confederate soldier, was only torn down by protesters in 2018 despite decades of protest thanks to a state law that prohibited the removal of Confederate monuments. UNC-Chapel Hill is notorious for its lack of diversity and racist incidents as well.
NC State’s not immune to making mistakes either. The failure of the university to terminate Chadwick Seagraves, a desk support team manager in the Office of Information Technology accused of using an anonymous account to leak personal information of Black Lives Matter activists, is still fresh for many students who felt there was sufficient evidence for the University to invoke disciplinary action. NC State has also suffered low rates of minority representation on campus, scoring an “F” in representation equity in the University of Southern California’s 2018 report card regarding Black student equity.
Leaving aside the conversation about tenure, hiring isn't only an issue down the road at the Tar Heel school. Only 20.4% of NC State’s faculty are from underrepresented minority groups — a lethargic percentage considering North Carolina’s Black population percentage alone is at 22.2% — it isn't surprising NC State’s not faring any better than Chapel Hill in terms of diversity initiatives.
These problems begin at the top of the UNC System’s structure. Each university has a 13-member board of trustees with eight members appointed by the UNC System Board of Governors and four appointed by the North Carolina General Assembly. And the Board of Governors itself is elected by the General Assembly, a group of partisan politicians with an extensive history of racial gerrymandering and redistricting.
Not only is the Board of Governors in charge of electing the respective trustee boards for 16 major colleges in North Carolina, but the UNC System president and respective chancellors as well. Because of the extent to which the General Assembly can influence the Board of Governors and each board of trustees, higher education in North Carolina is incredibly susceptible to corruption from political forces, and we saw that in action last week as Hannah-Jones was denied tenure.
If UNC-Chapel Hill continues to deny Hannah-Jones tenureship, a dangerous precedent is set for future incoming faculty members who have performed important work regarding sensitive or controversial topics, or anything else that hits a raw nerve for the political party in power. If anything, the decision highlights that the UNC System colleges care more about political pandering than quality education. Incoming and current college students — and especially student journalists — should take this into consideration if this injustice continues.
We cannot remain silent about this issue. UNC-Chapel Hill’s board of trustees must not only give tenure to Hannah-Jones, but ensure political ploys do not affect hiring processes in the future as well. If the UNC System truly cares about its students, staff and faculty, then it should aim to face its deeply-rooted history of academic and political corruption that continues to plague the reputation and success of its universities. A loss of equity somewhere is a loss of equity everywhere.
This unsigned editorial is the opinion of Technician’s editorial board and is the responsibility of the editor-in-chief.
Editor's Note: This editorial was updated on May 25 at 1:18 p.m.