UNC debacle should shine light on faculty hiring process
I know the Nikole Hannah-Jones story has drawn more attention than it deserved. But I can’t help myself. There has been some superb reporting in Carolina Journal, but I don’t think the contrarian position to McClatchy newspapers, Capital Broadcasting, and public news and radio has been fully expressed. We now know what really happened. I want to analyze the central arguments made by the progressive triumvirate of North Carolina media.
The first is that the UNC Board of Trustees was politically motivated. The unusual nature of its intervention is proof of this. Missing from the argument is an analysis of the initial decision to hire NHJ. Many pointed out that if her 1619 Project—upon which the case for her tenure hinges—centers the country’s founding around pre-colonial slavery rather than, say, 1776. Yet, it makes sense to focus on the 1500s when the Spanish brought enslaved Africans to Florida. That works for the truth but not the agenda, however. It drives a wedge between people of color and two important progressive constituencies.
The school’s board is in the unfortunate position of having its actions examined in a way the professors in UNC’s Hussman School of Journalism and Media did not. Faculty make opaque hiring and tenure decisions away from outside scrutiny. Their objectivity and fairness are unquestioned. What if they had chosen Jason Riley, an acclaimed conservative African-American writer at the Wall Street Journal? UNC’s BOT might well have approved tenure expeditiously, just as in 99 percent of other cases and just as NHJ’s supporters say they should.
But of course, the faculty did not—and are unlikely to ever—hire Riley or a journalist like him. I had to use a counterfactual to make my point, which brings me to another. Although elected officials select the BOT and it acted perfectly within its rights, it is somehow supposed to have been unaccountable. NHJ’s supporters accuse it of violating the public trust and overturning a decision in direct contravention of the interests of the people’s university.
The faculty make the hiring, promotion, and tenure decisions most determinative of the outcome. If the process needs greater transparency and accountability, let’s open up its most essential parts. We could publish the list of candidates who apply and permit North Carolina residents to comment on them and attend faculty deliberations. I suspect if we got true democracy in NHJ’s case—and the public voted directly on her hiring and tenure package—she still would not be at UNC this fall.
The decision is an academic personnel matter, not a political one. There is a solid argument to be made it should be secretive. This is why UNC police removed student protestors from the BOT’s consideration of NHJ. It is also the basis for criticism of Walter Hussman’s attempts to interfere. But he was not alone. The Knight Foundation, who funded the post she was to occupy, participated in a vigorous national campaign to influence the outcome.
The bottom line is this. Faculty have de facto monopolistic control of a hiring and tenure process that is stacked in favor of certain candidates because of the lack of viewpoint and intellectual diversity in many fields. This permits the weeding out of contrarian professors before any board members gets involved. Regardless of whether or not UNC’s BOT should have welcomed NHJ with open arms—and remember members were initially presented with a contract that did not include tenure and ultimately voted to give her it—it was, of all the groups with a formal role, the least powerful but most democratic.
Andy Taylor is a professor of political science at the School of International and Public Affairs at N.C. State University.