Keeping Up With Nikole

No sooner does the Nikole Hannah-Jones story turn in one direction than it veers in another. My wife has a name for roads in rural Vermont that behave like this. She calls them ziggles, a portmanteau of zigzags and wiggles. You can drive them safely, but it pays not to pick up too much speed between veering one direction and another.

It seems like only yesterday that the esteemed board of trustees at the University of North Carolina voted nine to four to grant tenure to Nikole Hannah-Jones, creator of the New York Times’ now infamous “1619 Project,” in order to quiet the controversy over the board’s previous decision to award the acclaimed journalist an academic appointment at the Hussman School of Journalism but not to award her tenure. 

Claiming racial discrimination, Hannah-Jones participated in a high-profile campaign demanding that the UNC board change its mind. And lo! It did. On June 30, the board conscientiously reviewed the case and decided, in the words of chairman R. Gene Davis, “to set the record straight.”

That’s an odd way for the road engineers to describe their plotting of a new ziggle. But let Chairman Davis explain: 

Let me be perfectly clear. Our motto is Lux et Libertas, light and liberty. We remain committed to being a light shining brightly on the hill. We embrace and endorse academic freedom, open and rigorous debate and scholarly inquiry, constructive disagreement, all of which are grounded in the virtue of listening to each other.

Academic freedom has been robustly vindicated at UNC by capitulating to a woke mob that threatened the trustees and the university if it didn’t get its way. That’s how things are set straight in Chapel Hill these days. The trustees apparently have been studying Vermont road maps.


Of course, that was last week’s news. This week’s news was Hannah-Jones’ decision, announced on CBS News’ “This Morning” on July 6, that she was declining the UNC offer of a tenured appointment in order to accept the position of the inaugural Knight Chair in Race and Journalism at Howard University. Hannah-Jones explained to host Gayle King her reason for declining the UNC position:

Because look what it took to get tenure. This was a position that since 1980s came with tenure. The Knight Chairs are designed for professional journalists when working in the field to come to academia and every other chair before me who happened to be white received that position with tenure. 

I went through the tenure process and I received the unanimous approval of the faculty to be granted tenure, and so to be denied it, and to only have that vote occur on the last possible day, at the last possible moment, at the threat of legal action, after weeks of protests, after it became a national scandal, it’s just not something I want anymore.

Hannah-Jones’ explanation makes it pretty clear that her decision to reject the appointment was made before the UNC board voted. She was playing the members of the board like marionettes in order to humiliate them by showing the world that they would obey. 

The savor of this victory must be all the more delicious given the remarks of Chairman Davis on June 30, when he said the decision demonstrates that “this board reaffirms that our university puts its highest values first.” What were those “highest values”? Davis offers some blather about “academic freedom, open scholarly inquiry, commitment to diversity of all types—including viewpoint diversity, and promotion of constructive disagreement and civil public discourse,” but fails to acknowledge the value of craven capitulation to an activist mob and an indignant celebrity. No reference is made to the concern that Hannah-Jones’ celebrated 1619 Project and her lead essay in it is riddled with historical falsehoods that she spent more than a year denying, and then began to correct via stealth edits. These weren’t matters of “viewpoint diversity” or “constructive disagreement.” They were straight-up journalistic malfeasance. 

So now we know by a vote of 9-4 that the UNC trustees don’t care about that as much as they cared about escaping the opprobrium of fake accusations of racism. 

But it turned out this bit of stage management had been nicely anticipated by Hannah-Jones, who promptly turned it against those “last minute” trustees. She made a laughingstock of them, no matter how they now play it. And shame on them. Gullibility isn’t innocence. It is a form of complicity. 

UNC now escapes the burden and liability of a tenured Hannah-Jones. Howard University gains a trophy appointment of a chaired professor whose notoriety as a fabulist will never go away. I suppose Howard’s faculty members will be circumspect in saying anything about this appointment, though it won’t be easily swallowed by a faculty that has frequently distinguished itself by actual achievement rather racial grandstanding. UNC’s gain is Howard’s loss. But stay tuned. An alert driver knows the ziggles never end.


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