The last few months – and especially last week – reminded Americans how contentious higher education politics have become for academics, and particularly for Black scholars.
The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC) made headlines when its board of trustees delayed tenure for journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones. I recently spoke about this controversy on WNPR’s “Disrupted” with several academic colleagues.
Academia has faced challenges with academic freedom – or the ability for faculty and students not to be penalized for their views and research. Tenure ensures this academic protection and it allows for scholars to explore their research devoid of political pressure. As a recently tenured professor, I respect academic freedom and especially as a policy analyst engaged in public scholarship – an academic area I will highlight in the future.
But increasingly, university donors, officials, and alumni are steering decisions and disrupting academic freedom. The Hannah-Jones affair should be a reminder of how higher education officials can limit tenure and academic freedom. It should also be a wake-up call that her decision to join Howard University over UNC demonstrates why minority-serving institutions, like Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), are a necessity, especially in our post-civil rights era.
Hannah-Jones is a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter, as she is widely known for her research surrounding The New York Times Magazine’s “The 1619 Project,” which focused on ties between American slavery and modern racial issues.
While the Times series garnered much acclaim, it also led some to dispute the research findings. UNC trustee Walter Hussman found the claims that America’s founders were attempting to maintain slavery by seeking British independence problematic. Reportedly, he and other trustees delayed the tenure process for Hannah-Jones and protests by faculty, students, and alumni ensued.
Some proclaimed “superstar” faculty, particularly notable authors lacking a doctorate, petition or receive tenure for academic freedom and professional purposes. But it is highly unusual for university trustees to delay a tenure decision after the department faculty, chair, dean, and provost have all approved tenure. For all intents and purposes, trustees finalize the decision following the faculty and administrators’ peer-review process.
For university trustees to interfere in academics’ decisions goes against academic freedom itself. But Hussman is not just a trustee: he’s also an alumnus and significant donor to UNC’s journalism school, which is named after him.
Hannah-Jones is a UNC alumna as well, and the recipient of a Peabody Award and National Magazine Award. Along with her MacArthur Fellowship “Genius” grant, she was also endowed with a Knight Foundation professorship. This is a significant feat because these awards and grants allow an academic to pursue their research with financial support.
But Hannah-Jones ultimately turned down UNC’s offer last week since trustees belatedly voted 9-4 for tenure after delaying the process for several months. More importantly, Hannah-Jones announced that she is joining Howard University faculty along with Howard alumnus and author, Ta-Nehisi Coates. Coates, a National Book Award recipient, will be the Sterling Brown Chair in the English Department.
The sudden announcement was unusual, especially since funding for their positions came together rapidly from several prestigious foundations and Howard alumni. With Coates’ and Hannah-Jones’ appointments at Howard, they will be funded with nearly $20 million in donations and grants to help support the Center for Journalism and Democracy.
This episode is a significant boon for Howard, but it’s also a reminder to Americans that academic freedom should not be taken for granted. It’s been eroding in academia and UNC is not the only institution where it has been challenged. Within the last 25 years, the number of faculty tenure-track positions (for faculty able to file for tenure) has dwindled from 56% to 45%.
Thankfully, HBCUs like Howard serve a vital purpose for continued African diaspora research and scholarship, as Coates offered last week on NPR. I know this importance as an academic as well as a Howard alumnus and Coates’ history-major classmate. Hannah-Jones and others are respecting the need for minority-serving institutions just as academic freedom is being increasingly challenged.
Jonathan L. Wharton, Ph.D. is the associate dean of the School of Graduate and Professional Studies and teaches political science at Southern Connecticut State University in New Haven.
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