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

A few parting thoughts about Nikole Hannah-Jones, and the role of trustees and donors

Nikole Hannah-Jones. Photo (cc) 2018 by Alice Vergueiro / Abraji.

Now that the board of trustees at the University of North Carolina has finally voted to grant tenure to New York Times journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones, I want to close this story out with a few parting thoughts, mainly about the role of trustees and donors.

When it comes to tenure decisions, trustees have what you might call a “ministerial” role. That’s a word that was used quite a bit around the time that Joe Biden’s win over Donald Trump was being certified by Congress. Members of the House and Senate had to vote before the election could become official, but by custom and practice they were bound to vote for the candidate who had won the Electoral College. Their role, in other words, was “ministerial,” not deliberative or substantive. That doesn’t mean they couldn’t deviate, and, as we know, some of them did. But that was seen as a norm-breaking abrogation of past practice, notwithstanding a few protest votes that had been cast in previous elections.

So, too, is it with trustees and tenure. By the time a tenure case comes before the trustees, it’s been approved by the faculty member’s department, college (in the case of a university), provost and the president. The trustees’ role is to ratify, not to debate. As with Congress and the presidential election, that doesn’t mean the trustees can’t vote to reject someone for tenure. But to do so would amount to a complete breakdown of custom and a severe misunderstanding on the part of the trustees as to what their role really is.

Hannah-Jones’ tenure case was approved on a 9-4 vote, meaning that four trustees just don’t get it. They are not there to express their personal views. They’re there to support the administration and then go out to dinner. I don’t mean to suggest that they should play no role in the governance of the university. If there were, say, misconduct on the part of the president, then it’s the trustees’ job to discipline or fire that person. What they’re not supposed to do is reach down past the president and overturn a tenure decision.

That said, the real travesty at UNC is that the trustees allowed a major donor to influence them. Walter Hussman Jr., who showered so much money upon the journalism school that they named it after him, contacted some of the trustees and made his feelings known about the 1619 Project, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Times reporting about slavery and American history that Hannah-Jones conceived of and was the lead writer for. Although Hussman, who owns the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, has said it wasn’t his intention to pressure the trustees and that he never threatened to withhold his donation, there seems to be little doubt — according to reporting by NC Policy Watch — that at least some of the trustees were worried Hussman would close his checkbook and walk away.

And not to go bothsides here, because there’s really no comparison. But the Times reports today that the trustees also heard from another major donor, this one on Hannah-Jones’ behalf:

As the debate went on, Ms. Hannah-Jones received the support of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, a major donor to the university. The foundation’s chief executive, Richard E. Besser, sent a letter to the board chairman, Richard Stevens, on June 3, encouraging the trustees to “support the appointment of Ms. Hannah-Jones with full tenure privileges.”

That, too, was improper, although I suppose Besser concluded that he needed to fight fire with fire.

The merits of Hannah-Jones’ tenure case were indisputable. Her appointment was to a Knight Chair, a position that always comes with tenure. She is the recipient not only of a Pulitzer but of a MacArthur Genius Grant. Opposition to her was grounded in right-wing criticism of the 1619 Project, which seeks to recenter the American story around slavery. The quibbles about it are minor when compared to its epic sweep.

We should all be glad that this has finally been resolved. But it’s enraging that it was so difficult.

Previous coverage.

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  1. cynthiastead

    I disagree with you on the subject. I am a trustee of a large and international organization. We actively vote on new hires and major positions, and in one case during my tenure a dismissal – and these votes did not always follow the recommendation of the director. A trustee is a member of a board, but not all board members are trustees. The role you describe would be more accurately assigned to a board member although I disagree that they are only in it for the dinners. But trustees have financial and legal responsibilities for oversight beyond them and there was nothing inappropriate about their vote.

    • Dan Kennedy

      I have accurately described academic governance, which is from another planet compared to any other type of situation.

      • StephenB

        Slight correction to “from another planet compared to any other type of situation,” Dan. Public governance, e.g., governance of public schools, libraries, park districts, municipalities, etc., is practically the same as academic governance, in that the governing board or council, while indeed in charge of everything related to the agency, delegates the majority of its powers to the chief executive, be that person a president, superintendent, executive director, or whatever the title. The board or council retains the powers to set policy, pass laws or ordinances, approve budgets, engage consultants, and evaluate the performance of the chief executive, including writing the job description of the CE and hiring/firing the CE. Except for supervising the CE, setting personnel policies, and signing union contracts, the board/council generally stays out of personnel, faculty or staffing decisions, other than, as you stated regarding the university’s board, fulfilling their ministerial role according to law or policy.

  2. Thanks so much for your attention to this case, Dan. It matters.

  3. Dan Kennedy

    Stephen, you’re overlooking the role of the faculty. The employees don’t have a significant say in running the institution except in academia. So there’s far more to it than the dynamic between the administration and the trustees.

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