May and June were lovely months. The cherry trees in Riverside Park put on their annual extravaganza. The eastern redbuds came a beat later with their mysterious clusters of lavender flowers bursting straight out of their bark. And free-range New Yorkers met the sunlight, maskless as the day they were born. This glorious freedom was bound to fade, but not before we had one more gift: the revelation that the trustees of the University of North Carolina had summoned the courage to say “no” to the proposal that Nikole Hannah-Jones, author of the New York Times‘ now-infamous “1619 Project,” be appointed with tenure to UNC’s Hussman School of Journalism.
I expressed my delight in this development several weeks after it was reported. And while the American higher education establishment was seething with resentment over the decision, it looked like those UNC trustees had the gravel to stick with their unpopular choice.
Now we know better. Last week, in a 9-4 vote, the UNC trustees approved a grant of tenure to the award-winning journalist. No explanation was offered, but the decision followed an intense campaign of vilification of the trustees for their failure to recognize Hannah-Jones’ exceptional merits.
Kudos to the four trustees—Dave Boliek, Haywood Cochrane, Allie Ray McCullen, and John Preyer—who had the fortitude to stand against the surrender.
The vote is a significant defeat for those of us who hope to see American colleges and universities cease their seemingly relentless slide into the politicization of their faculty, curricula, and academic standards.
Hannah-Jones’ tenured appointment, of course, is far from the first time that a public university board has capitulated to pressure to go along with a meretricious appointment, and it won’t be the last time either. It feels a little different, however, because it was preceded by that short spring of hope.
What should we make of the trustees’ reversal? Some of the lessons will be abundantly clear to Hannah-Jones’ supporters. Noise works. Bluster, threats, and intimidation are effective ways to advance an academic appointment that is meritless on its face. University trustees are as susceptible to social and political pressure as anyone else. The trick is to spot their particular vulnerabilities.
The other lesson is more speculative. UNC has willingly sacrificed some of its reputation for high academic standards in order to appease its woke critics, to land a celebrity journalist, and to stave off the threat of a boycott by some other black academics.
The university faces a potential cost in doing this—the cost of reputational damage. That cost, of course, is unknowable at this point. Will the Hussman School fail to attract some good students who are turned off by the prospect of studying under a teacher who has conspicuously played fast and loose with the facts? Or will her celebrity and the controversy itself yield a bonanza of starstruck students? Plainly, UNC faces no reputational cost within the progressive American professoriate which rallied to her cause. But what happens among alumni, parents, and taxpayers in North Carolina?
The tried and true approach of boards of trustees is to let controversies, like campfires, die out. People will forget, and the university will move on. In time, it will seem old-hat even to remember the controversy. But there is some risk in that, too. Hannah-Jones, having been awarded tenure, will be around for a long time to come, and if her past is prologue to the years ahead, UNC can expect its share of scandal and controversy to be refreshed fairly often. And that just might help the public remember the decision of the UNC trustees to award tenure to a showman who was utterly unqualified for a high academic position.