By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

UNC’s board of trustees needs to grant tenure to Nikole Hannah-Jones today

Nikole Hannah-Jones. Photo (cc) 2019 by Penn State.

Right-wing critics of The New York Times’ 1619 Project, which repositions slavery as central to American history, have claimed their biggest prize yet.

On Wednesday, NC Policy Watch broke the news that Nikole Hannah-Jones, who directed the project and wrote the lead essay, had been denied tenure by the University of North Carolina’s board of trustees. Instead, Hannah-Jones was offered a five-year contract after which her tenure case would be considered. The trustees’ action came after Hannah-Jones had easily cleared every hurdle on the academic side, leading any reasonable person to conclude that the trustees’ motives were political.

The faculty at UNC’s Hussman School of Journalism and Media issued a statement that reads in part:

Failure to tenure Nikole Hannah-Jones in her role as the Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism is a concerning departure from UNC’s traditional process and breaks precedent with previous tenured full professor appointments of Knight chairs in our school. This failure is especially disheartening because it occurred despite the support for Hannah-Jones’s appointment as a full professor with tenure by the Hussman Dean, Hussman faculty, and university. Hannah-Jones’s distinguished record of more than 20 years in journalism surpasses expectations for a tenured position as the Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism.

Jeff Jarvis of CUNY’s Newmark Journalism School started a petition calling the decision “an act of blatant partisanship and racism in the academy” and demanding “immediate reconsideration.” As of this writing, about 170 journalism professors had signed, including me and seven of my colleagues at Northeastern University.

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Hannah-Jones has been under relentless attack from the right since the moment that the 1619 Project was published in August 2019, the 400th anniversary of slavery in what later became the United States. She won a Pulitzer Prize and a MacArthur genius grant, but critics have claimed that her work is deeply flawed.

As Tom Jones of the Poynter Institute observes, Hannah-Jones’ appointment provoked outrage on the right when it was announced recently. Here’s a characteristic lead from National Review, written by George Leaf:

To land a professorship in American colleges and universities, you have to either have a superb record of academic achievement or espouse radical leftist ideas. The former still prevails in hard sciences (although standards there are beginning to erode), but in many other academic fields, “wokeness” is now the main consideration.

Leaf, in turn, quotes Jay Shalin, who writes for an organization called the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal:

For instance, she claimed that “one of the primary reasons the colonists decided to declare their independence from Britain was because they wanted to protect the institution of slavery” as British anti-slavery sentiment grew. There is almost no hint of that in factual history.

And that’s where I want to pause for moment. Because that was perhaps the most substantive observation offered by Hannah-Jones’ critics, provoking a response from a number of historians, not all of them conservatives, who claimed that it just wasn’t so. Let me note the response of Hannah-Jones’ editor at The New York Times Magazine, Jake Silverstein, who observed that there was, in fact, considerable anti-slavery agitation taking place on the British side:

The culmination of this [anti-slavery rhetoric] was the Dunmore Proclamation, issued in late 1775 by the colonial governor of Virginia, which offered freedom to any enslaved person who fled his plantation and joined the British Army. A member of South Carolina’s delegation to the Continental Congress wrote that this act did more to sever the ties between Britain and its colonies “than any other expedient which could possibly have been thought of.” The historian Jill Lepore writes in her recent book, “These Truths: A History of the United States,” “Not the taxes and the tea, not the shots at Lexington and Concord, not the siege of Boston; rather, it was this act, Dunmore’s offer of freedom to slaves, that tipped the scales in favor of American independence.” And yet how many contemporary Americans have ever even heard of it? Enslaved people at the time certainly knew about it. During the Revolution, thousands sought freedom by taking refuge with British forces.

It is notable that Lepore was not among the historians who wrote to the Times. Strangely, the idea that Hannah-Jones was simply wrong in claiming that slavery was an important cause of the revolution has become an article of faith, even though Lepore’s research makes it clear that Hannah-Jones got it right.

Hannah-Jones so far has remained silent:

But some of the coverage makes it sound like she’s already agreed to the five-year contract. I hope she hasn’t. The whole point of tenure is that it provides you with the freedom of speak out. In effect, the trustees are saying that they want to make sure Hannah-Jones will behave herself before granting her a lifetime contract.

The trustees are meeting later today. They have a chance to undo this outrageous act against a great journalist. Let’s see what happens.

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  1. “leading any reasonable person to conclude that the trustees’ motives were political.” But is “political” the problem here? If the trustees denied tenure to someone like Charles Murray for publishing a book or a newspaper series like “The Bell Curve,” many people would then applaud the trustees for considering politics or ideology. The question here is whether, as in the Jarvis quote, the trustees were being “blatantly partisan” or, worse, straight-up racist.

    • Dan Kennedy

      The trustees’ role is, to use a word we’ve heard a lot this year, “ministerial.” The issues you raise are all dealt with in detail by the faculty, the dean, the provost and the president.

      • Steve Ross

        I’m not sure there is any comparison. The Bell Curve was based on fake math (shortcomings of IQ tests were well known in the 1970s and Blacks did better than Whites in the first widely used intelligence tests, for the WW1 draft). Statistical correlations assume all variance is on one axis. To the extent there is also fuzziness on the other (in this case, iQ scores, school quality, poverty, family, and racial definitions), there are large uncertainties that Murray and his co-author never addressed (explore Working-Hotelling effect, especially). The book was deliberately racist.

        On the tenure issue, the facts are fuzzy, too. England had banned slavery in 1772, but not for its colonies. There was almost zero discussion of this anywhere in the North American colonies even before Dunhill in 1775. But by then the revolution was well under way in New England. The British started to phase out slavery in its empire starting only in 1833, long after slave revolts as in Haiti (against the French) and in British Jamaica starting in the 1820s. I found the argument in 1619 rather unconvincing. But so what? Scholarship and journalism are always open to discussion.

        The Bell Curve is not the same … it marshaled a mathematical claim that statisticians of all stripes pounced on at the time. History is subject to much greater latitude. Discuss we must, though, because even recent history (say, the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago) is fuzzy.

  2. Dan Kennedy

    Steve: I agree with all of that. But the overriding factor here is that the trustees shouldn’t even be getting involved in tenure cases. It’s pretty much unheard-of.

    • Robert David Sullivan

      I find it difficult to believe that anyone would maintain an absolute zero-tolerance policy on the trustees of a state university getting involved in tenure cases. Not in 2021.

  3. StephenB

    I’d like to see Jill Lepore come down definitively on one side or the other of the 1619 Project controversy. It seems that the one quote out of context from Lepore’s book is the sole hook on which the NY Times is hanging its hat.

    • Dan Kennedy

      StephenB: What is your evidence that it’s out of context? I did look at the entire Lepore passage once, and it certainly didn’t seem out of context to me. I considered dropping $11 on the Kindle version of her book this morning but decided against it.

  4. StephenB

    I haven’t read These Truths, but I just put it on reserve at my public library. I would like to see the passage in question in the context of the chapter in which it appears. I have read some articles by Lepore and haven’t seen any mention by her of the Dunmore Proclamation as being the most important trigger of the Revolution. I do remember her emphasizing that New England moved quickly and decisively to abolish slavery at that time. I look forward to reading These Truths and am still eager to get Lepore’s take on the 1619 Project.

    • In the small amount of poking around I did on this through Google, I came across references to work done by Sylvia Frey on the Dunmore issue, including an article in the Journal of Southern History in 1983. The Dunmore issue sounds more complicated than something done for the best interests of the enslaved who were eligible under it, or something that was of more general import than a tactic to subdue colonist opponents.

      • StephenB

        Thanks for the reference. Now I’m curious about this Dunmore issue. Thinking further about the few things I’ve read by Lepore on the Revolution, I took away that the northern states fully abolished slavery in the early 1780s, almost one hundred years before the 13th Amendment and twenty-five years before the British Empire abolished the slave trade, and that this is something to feel proud of.

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