Nikole Hannah-Jones’s tangle with the University of North Carolina seems to many yet another reason to dismiss the tenure system as the preserve of a white, male hierarchy intolerant of divergent views and inattentive to the need for diversity.
But some academicians and experts say the whole episode actually shows why tenure remains so critical to protecting academic freedoms — and how the system for granting tenure itself needs to be safeguarded from political influence.
“If there ever is a case where the original purpose of tenure is in evidence, it’s this one,” said Margaret McKenna, the former president of Lesley University, who described herself as generally skeptical of tenure.
Tenure was widely established in the US higher education system in the early 20th century to protect professors’ ability to express their views and to pursue their research without fear of retribution.
In recent years, tenure has come under fire from many quarters: administrators who don’t like the personnel and budgetary constraints; conservatives who object to entrenched liberal politics in academia; students and academics who complain tenure committees prioritize publishing over teaching; and critics who believe tenure protects an old guard of white, male professors at the expense of younger and more diverse scholars. Between 1975 and 2019, the portion of full-time instructional staff who are either tenured or on the tenure track has steadily declined, from 45 percent to 27 percent, according to researchers.
But Hannah-Jones’s case underscores the vulnerability of academia to political interference, and the urgent need to protect freedom of thought, some scholars say.
Such freedoms are vital to democracy, according to Suffolk law professor Sara Dillon, who wrote in 2019 that autocratic regimes target dissident academics in hopes of boosting government control.
Hannah-Jones has been a lightning rod for conservative criticism of The New York Times magazine’s 1619 project, which re-examined US history through the lens of slavery’s legacy. She won the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for commentary for her introductory essay.
In April, the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill announced Hannah-Jones would join the faculty as the Knight Chair for Race and Investigative Journalism; going back to the 1980s, previous Knight chairs have been appointed with tenure. Despite overwhelming faculty support, the university’s board of trustees stalled a vote on her tenure application amid strong objections from conservative political groups.
After students and colleagues protested, trustees ultimately approved tenure for Hannah-Jones, but she announced earlier this month that she would instead accept a chaired professorship at Howard University, a historically Black university in Washington, D.C.
Scholars in tenure-track positions are generally reviewed by a faculty committee at their institution and external evaluators who consider their teaching, research, and service, and then forward recommendations to school leaders to finalize a decision. The high-stakes process typically plays out over years.
Kimberly Theidon, a medical anthropologist who unsuccessfully sued Harvard University after she was denied tenure in 2013, said the tenure application process has sometimes been used to try to silence academics, including herself, Cornel West, who left Harvard this year over a tenure dispute, and Lorgia García Peña, who was denied tenure by Harvard in 2019.
Last week, West, who has advocated for Palestinian rights, released his resignation letter, which accused Harvard’s leaders of withholding tenure from him because of its “hostility to the Palestinian cause.” (Harvard declined to comment.)
In her case, Theidon said she believed her advocacy on behalf of students who accused faculty members of sexual harassment factored into the decision to deny her tenure.
While a federal judge and appeals court rejected Theidon’s lawsuit, Harvard later investigated allegations of sexual misconduct levied at the professor who led the anthropology department while Theidon was being considered for tenure.
As a result of that investigation, Harvard last month announced that Gary Urton had been stripped of his emeritus status and barred from campus because he had violated sexual misconduct policies, according to The Harvard Crimson and Harvard Magazine. Harvard said it doesn’t comment on investigations; Theidon said she doesn’t know the scope of the investigation that resulted in the sanctions against Urton.
“Tenure, as it currently stands, is so important for us as academics, and yet it is open to all sorts of manipulation and abuse if there’s not transparency and accountability built into” the application process, said Theidon, who now teaches at Tufts University, where she is tenured.
Wealthy donors have been seen as part of the problem; at UNC, Walter Hussman Jr., the journalism school’s namesake, expressed concerns to university leaders about the accuracy of The 1619 Project, but told the Poynter Institute that he “didn’t lobby against her appointment.”
But Theidon suggested donors could also be a force for protecting academic freedom. What if, she said, major donors decided to withhold contributions unless schools demonstrated that they’ve diversified the ranks of their tenured faculty and addressed such issues as gender discrimination and sexual harassment?
“Just as Hussman, unfortunately, was able to have a horrible impact, donors could have a very positive impact,” she said.
Another concern raised by the UNC imbroglio is the power the board of trustees wielded in overriding the faculty’s strong support for Hannah-Jones. In public university systems, governing board appointments are often made by political figures; in North Carolina, lawmakers appoint all 24 members of the university system’s Board of Governors and four of the 13 members of the UNC-Chapel Hill’s board of trustees.
The American Association of University Professors, a nonprofit organization founded in 1915, is credited with authoring widely accepted standards for tenure that have been incorporated into faculty handbooks.
The group says that faculties should have the “primary responsibility” for academic matters, including tenure status, and that schools’ governing boards should only intervene in “exceptional circumstances.”
“The process is designed to be very rigorous, and once [the instructor] has gone through that,” said Anita Levy, senior program officer for the organization, “the board really has no role to play.”
Carlton Brown, a senior consultant for the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges, said boards do deserve a role in the tenure process, since a university’s overall success — which trustees are tasked with promoting — depends in part on staffing decisions.
Brown suggested that the board and faculty should collaborate to plan the school’s long-term tenure strategy — ensuring, for instance, that lifetime appointments don’t interfere with recruiting younger academics. But focusing on individual tenure candidates would overstep their bounds, Brown said.
Still, some colleges and universities have departed from those basic standards under political pressure.
In 2015, Wisconsin state lawmakers under former Republican governor Scott Walker removed tenure protections for public university professors from state law and gave more authority to regents, who drafted policies that made it easier to lay off tenured faculty. This year, some Republican state lawmakers in Iowa tried to ban tenure at public universities, citing concerns about how conservative students are treated on campus, though the bill failed to make it out of committee.
Other higher education institutions have meddled with tenure amid budgetary concerns, or leadership changes. In 2018, the private Vermont Law School eliminated the tenure status of about three-quarters of its tenured faculty members without involving them in the decision-making process in a meaningful way, according to the university professors’ association.
Dillon said well-functioning tenure systems are clear and transparent about the criteria for scholarship, service, and teaching. Schools should also give candidates regular feedback during the years-long tenure process, she said.
Leadership boards also need to be educated about their role in the process, some experts said.
Business executives who serve on boards at colleges and universities may be less familiar with standard practices in higher education, said Michael DeCesare, a Merrimack College professor who leads a university professors’ association committee.
“They think that they can just make decisions on their own, regardless of what the faculty says,” DeCesare said.
Jane McBride Gates, a high-ranking leader in Connecticut’s public higher education system, said schools could consider requiring members of leadership boards to affirm in writing that they understand their role.
“That’s where I think we need to shore up the processes and standards,” she said.