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Republican attacks on higher education are a threat to democracy

The decision to block journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones from getting tenure at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is part of the creeping government overreach at public universities.

Nikole Hannah-Jones attends the 75th Annual Peabody Awards ceremony in New York, May 2016. Faculty members at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill want an explanation for the school's reported decision to back away from offering a tenured teaching position to Hannah-Jones.
Nikole Hannah-Jones attends the 75th Annual Peabody Awards ceremony in New York, May 2016. Faculty members at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill want an explanation for the school's reported decision to back away from offering a tenured teaching position to Hannah-Jones.Evan Agostini/Evan Agostini/Invision/AP

Nikole Hannah-Jones is one of oday’s most accomplished journalists. She is the recipient of a Pulitzer Prize, a MacArthur Foundation fellowship, and countless other awards that recognize her work. Her 1619 Project for The New York Times — which centers the story of the United States on the history and legacy of slavery and the contributions of Black Americans — has been the subject of fierce academic and political debate, so much so that Republican state legislatures, in keeping with their tradition of intentionally overlooking the nation’s sins, have been trying to discourage its use in schools.

So when Hannah-Jones was recommended for tenure by the faculty at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s journalism school, the faculty obviously knew what they were bargaining for: Sure, Hannah-Jones does not have a PhD as most academics do, and her work has indeed been politically polarizing. But as far as the field of journalism is concerned, she has more experience to offer UNC students (and the accolades to prove it) than most PhD journalists ever could. And yet, despite the faculty’s strong recommendation, as well as the dean and administration’s reported support for her appointment, the university’s board of trustees blocked Hannah-Jones from getting tenure, and the school instead offered her a five-year contract.


This should be disturbing to anyone who cares about free speech and academic freedom — two bedrock principles of a well-functioning democracy. Though the board of trustees was “worried about a nonacademic entering the university with tenure,” according to the journalism school’s dean, their decision is an inherently political one: Board members are either directly appointed by the state’s Legislature or by the University of North Carolina system’s board of governors, which also comprises members who are elected by the state’s lawmakers. (And as of 2015, the North Carolina Legislature had successfully purged all Democratic members from the board, replacing them with Republican donors and lobbyists.)


On top of that, while university boards often have the final say in tenure appointments, they seldom exercise that authority, in order to avoid even the appearance of political interference. Choosing to insist on blocking Hannah-Jones’s tenure appointment — in the midst of legislatures attempting to prohibit The 1619 Project in schools or cut funding to those that teach it — is clearly taking a political stance on the issue. And the brazenness in taking that stance, knowing that people would view it as a political decision, ultimately sets a dangerous precedent for other partisan legislatures to pressure public university board appointees to start openly interfering in faculty decisions.

That’s bad for democracy, since reprimanding someone in academia because they’re controversial is an explicit attempt to censor ideas and limit free speech. And though the university still offered Hannah-Jones a teaching position, meaning that the university did not censor her future scholarship, the fact that she would be denied tenure contributes to an environment where academics and junior faculty may self-censor, subconsciously or otherwise, in their pursuit of tenure in order to be more palatable.

“What we call it is the ‘chilling’ of academic freedom on campus,” said Anita Levy, senior program officer in the department of academic freedom, tenure, and governance at the American Association of University Professors. “Certainly we know anecdotally that junior faculty members have the potential for self-censorship.” And the majority of faculty, which is entirely off the tenure track, Levy added, can be especially vulnerable to self-censorship or retaliation from universities since they have far fewer employment protections than tenured staff.


UNC’s decision is part of a creep in recent years of more aggressive government assaults on higher education, most often in Republican-controlled states. That includes efforts to ban tenure, crack down on student protests, and pushing out board members or even university presidents because of their party affiliation. “[These assaults are] an example of how the Trump administration has trickled down to legislatures,” Levy said. “We’ve seen these campus free-speech bills in recent years, and now we’ve seen these issues of the teaching of critical race theory. This all seems to have intensified and to us represents the undue influence of state legislatures on campus policies that should be decided by college and university faculty and administrations … These are political agendas masquerading as law.”

Indeed, the Hannah-Jones controversy at UNC is just the latest manifestation of states exercising their power to limit intellectual curiosity and academic freedom on college campuses — all while slashing funding for higher education. Ultimately, UNC’s decision should be viewed as part of the Republican Party’s broader assault on American democracy. After all, it fits squarely within their strategy to fill institutions with loyalists and watch the credibility of the institutions crumble.


Abdallah Fayyad can be reached at abdallah.fayyad@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @abdallah_fayyad.