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How Ideological Warfare Threatens Public Higher Education

The case of UNC and Nikole Hannah-Jones is not just about one Black journalist being treated shabbily. It illustrates the dangers of political interference and underlines the need for a more diverse workforce of educators.

Nikole Hannah-Jones delivering the commencement address at Morehouse College on May 16, 2021. (Marcus Ingram/Getty Images)
Public officials should not treat journalists and academic scholars like political opponents. When they do, students lose out and so do their states. Such was the case when the board of trustees of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, initially refused to approve a tenured appointment of Nikole Hannah-Jones, the MacArthur “genius grant” recipient and Pulitzer Prize winner who headed up The New York Times Magazine’s widely heralded 1619 Project that has come under intense attack from the Right. The appointment was to be made in UNC’s Hussman School of Journalism and Media.

The trustees eventually reversed themselves and offered Hannah-Jones tenure. But, frustrated with the back and forth, she announced last Tuesday that she had rejected the UNC offer and instead accepted the position of inaugural Knight Chair at Howard University, the preeminent historically Black university in Washington, D.C. In addition to teaching, the chair at Howard came with a plum assignment to build a new Center for Journalism and Democracy. And it came with tenure — a status that practically guarantees lifelong insulation from outside political interference.

Politicians have long tried to influence the content of subject matters being taught and the standards by which students are to be evaluated. Often possessing little if any formal training in education, conservative policymakers today too often view education from the troublesome lens of the larger cultural battles being waged in Congress, statehouses and city halls. But lately this has turned to full-scale attacks on critical race theory, wokism and so-called cancel culture. This is occurring at the same time as we are witnessing a rise in white supremacist groups, violent anti-government militias, and disregard for facts and a free press. It has intensified since 2016, and it is not clear where it will all lead.

Hannah-Jones is not political in a partisan sense. She’s not a socialist or Marxist as many of her critics claim. She is a journalist trained at one of the nation’s finest journalism schools: the very one at UNC where she was to have received a tenured appointment. She is as perplexed as anyone to find herself in the middle of a racially tinged cultural war, where state laws and overt acts of censorship are seemingly aimed at her personally.

For the good of students, officials who approve budgets and set broad educational policies should encourage their states’ public colleges and universities to diversify their workforces. Students learn more when teachers from diverse backgrounds and disciplines challenge them to confront assumptions and become aware of their biases. In the end, this will make them better employees, leaders and citizens of our increasingly diverse society and world.

But by challenging educational leaders to set broad hiring policies of diversity, equity and inclusion, we are not extending to public officials the right to dictate what subject matters ought to be taught and who, as in the case of Hannah-Jones, should receive tenure. The Times journalist’s case is similar to those of other qualified minorities who have been denied tenure at prestigious institutions, but very different in other ways.

Hannah-Jones got sandwiched between a wealthy donor to the university’s journalism school — publisher Walter Hussman Jr., for whom the school is now named — who questioned some aspects of the Times team’s work on the 1619 report and the cultural wars being waged about whether emerging minority groups are amassing political power too quickly. The ideological war over who is an American and what subjects best represent American ideals has been going on forever, but it has been ratcheted up several notches since Barack Obama was elected president. His critics, including Donald Trump, immediately labeled him a noncitizen and illegitimate president.

Then came Hannah-Jones and her provocative series of essays aimed at re-centering American history around the issue of slavery at a time when the Republican Party had lost its majority in the House of Representatives and was on the way to losing the Senate and White House as well. Her saga is not just about one woman’s fight for tenure in a state flagship institution: It is about the right of students to be properly and fully educated on one hand and about highly qualified Black educators being able to work in public institutions free of political pressure due to the subject matter of their scholarship.
This would be merely an unfortunate ending to a tragic story if it were just about one Black journalist who was treated shabbily by her alma mater. But the implications are much greater. If what happened to Hannah-Jones goes uncorrected, many American students who attend publicly funded institutions of higher learning might be deprived of some of the best scholars of color this country has to offer. If minority educators don’t feel welcomed at the nation’s public institutions or believe they might be entering hostile environments where their teaching and scholarship may come under unfair scrutiny, they won’t come.

And it goes without saying that an historically Black private institution like Howard University, which attracted Hannah-Jones along with the gifted author and lecturer Ta-Nehisi Coates, a fellow MacArthur recipient, win big when predominantly white state institutions of higher education refuse to extend the welcome mat to highly qualified Black educators. Perhaps this gain for HBCUs should be celebrated and the story should end there. But keep in mind that Blacks and Latinos comprise 30 to 45 percent of some states’ populations and contribute tax dollars and lottery revenues to help pay for public higher education. They are stakeholders with every right to hold public officials accountable for high-quality education and demand that no qualified candidates for teaching positions be discriminated against or nationally embarrassed because of the color of their skin or the content of their scholarship.

Education at its best should open students’ eyes to new possibilities and worldviews that make them better appreciate their own humanity and vulnerabilities. A more diverse workforce of educators, such as what the Hannah-Jones hire would have brought to UNC and the state of North Carolina, would have helped us get there.

Governing's opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing's editors or management.
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