Op-Ed: Denying Nikole Hannah-Jones Tenure Sets a Dangerous Precedent

By Joshua Adams May 24, 2021

On May 19, news broke that Nikole Hannah-Jones was denied tenure at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. Critics of the move contend that the Board of Trustees is responding to political pressure from conservatives, who have lambasted The 1619 Project that Hannah-Jones helmed. The Associated Press reported that a trustee said her tenure was denied because Hannah-Jones did not have a “traditional academic-type background.”

UNC-Chapel Hill colleagues penned a letter of support for Hannah-Jones, as they were stunned by the decision to not accept her tenure. In the letter, they point to her “distinguished record of more than 20 years in journalism (which) surpasses expectations for a tenured position as the Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism.” The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education released a statement, saying this may have disturbing implications for academic freedom, and that when “decisions on academic tenure incorporate a form of political litmus test, this freedom is gravely compromised.”

Denying one of the most lauded journalists tenure at a journalism school sets a dangerous precedent. It also plays into an asymmetrical dynamic that plagues conversations about free speech on college campuses and media organizations. Conservatives are often the loudest voices accusing institutions of censoring ideas, but remain quiet when people with views they don’t agree with are fired, or in this case, don’t get promotions they plausibly deserve.

Hannah-Jones, a MacArthur Fellowship recipient and Pulitzer Prize winner (among many accolades), has done crucial reporting on issues of segregation in education for decades. She is likely more accomplished than a large majority of folks in similar academic positions. To echo The New Yorker writer Jelani Cobb, she has more accolades as a single person than the entire journalism department of most schools. Considering her ostensibly clear qualifications, it would not be a stretch to surmise that this whole thing is a battle in the culture war surrounding The 1619 Project

To definitively sift through bad faith attacks on her work and honest criticism of specific claims made in the project is a difficult task. Some historians, particularly conservatives, dismiss The 1619 Project as completely ideological. They see it as a clear example of the “wokeness” they are fighting against. Others contend some ideas—that American revolutionaries fought to ensure slavery would continue, or that 1619 should be considered a seminal date in our nation’s founding—undercut the whole project.

Though I think some critiques of The 1619 Project are exaggerated, as an important work of journalism that also—intentionally or not—serves as a historical document, the project deserves academic scrutiny. But this ordeal strikes me as hypocritical, particularly in the atmosphere where outrage over “cancel culture” permeates political discourse. While conservatives argue for academic freedom in college, Republican legislators across the country are banning the teaching of “critical race theory” in elementary school and high school. At the same time they push back against “liberal indoctrination” on college campuses, conservatives argue for “patriotic education,” which is a politically correct way to say “conservative indoctrination.”

If the discourse about academic freedom and ideological diversity in schools have any merit, then there has to be a reckoning with the imbalance of power in who has the power to cry “cancelled” and be taken seriously. What Hannah-Jones’ tenure denial highlights is the political Right’s fight to dictate the bounds of acceptable inquiry; what views we can hold and what ideas we can or can’t learn about. 

Broadly speaking, conservatives condemn journalists and academics who want to try to excavate a more accurate version of American history; a version that combats politically correct mythologies about both the country’s past or present. And this affects journalists and educators on all levels. This same week, The Associated Press news associate Emily Wilder was fired after a right-wing campaign uncovered social media posts she made in support of Palestinians.

If good faith criticism of the 1619 Project is rooted in a different interpretation of history, then credible historians should offer their pushback. But it’s much harder to legitimate the ideological attacks it gets, especially when there is a large swath of our country still teaching children the Civil War wasn’t about slavery. If this “Lost Cause” perspective, refuted by a myriad of primary source documents by those who created the Confederacy, is a legitimate interpretation, then The 1619 Project is a legitimate inquiry into the role slavery played in the founding of this nation.   

In his book “The Reactionary Mind”, Corey Robin wrote that conservatism is essentially “the felt experience of having power, seeing it threatened, and trying to win it back.” In the case of Nicole Hannah-Jones, The 1619 Project, “wokeness,” critical race theory, “cancel culture” and more, conservatives want to retain the power to control the body of American history, politics and culture. My best guess is that this is what all of the controversy is about, not whether or not she deserves tenure.

Joshua Adams is a Staff Writer for Colorlines. He’s a writer,  journalist and educator from the south side of Chicago. You can follow him @JournoJoshua