In yesterday’s Independence Day post, I challenged readers to present “an honest, factual, non-ideological defense” of the University of North Carolina’s decision to award a tenured faculty position in journalism to to New York Times race huckster and “1619 Project” propagandist Nikole Hannah-Jones. I did not expect a serious response, much less a persuasive one, as the challenge was, in my mind, akin to challenging someone to translate the Zodiac Killer’s code.
But reader Curmie has lived and worked in the world of academia whereas I only visited periodically, and understands why these things happen, and why, after a certain point in the process, have to happen. Here his his Comment of the Day on “Independence Day Ethics Fireworks, July 4th, 2021: ‘The Stars And Stripes Forever,’ And Other Matters,” Item #2.
I’m not sure if I can offer a “non-ideological defense” of the UNC Trustees’ reversal in the Hannah-Jones case. But I can say I’m one of the few people in the country who sees the decision as neither a triumph nor a capitulation. And I suppose that as one of the more liberal of your readers and as a veteran of three decades in tenure-track and tenured positions at colleges and universities, I might be the logical… erm… advocate?
So… Unless things work fundamentally differently in North Carolina than in the state university systems with which I’m more familiar, there are some things the average person might not completely understand.
First, members of the trustees/regents/council or whatever they’re called at an individual state university, are political appointees. Indeed, being a significant player in party politics has generally trumped having actual qualifications to benefit the university since the ‘80s or thereabouts. So it’s not as if political philosophy is absent from their decision-making. And it has been pretty well established that the initial refusal of tenure was influenced by pressure from (right-wing) politicians and donors. So the lefties and the BLM-ers weren’t alone in their temptations to indulge in a little ideological bias.
Second, the trustees may be the de jure decision-makers, but in virtually all day-to-day matters, they are expected to simply rubber-stamp what university officials have decided, sometimes even after the fact. This pertains to everything from hires (I think I’d been cashing payroll checks before I was “officially” hired), to promotions, to retirements, to honorary degrees (you may remember the brouhaha when playwright Tony Kushner was initially denied an honorary degree by CUNY because someone didn’t like his position on Israel), to, yes, tenure decisions.
Trustees, the good ones anyway, are valuable for business acumen, for their reputations, and for their ability to think more long-term. They’re at their best when they’re skeptical, but not when they’re micro-managing. Even if they have problems with a decision, it’s their function to support it unless it’s truly outrageous, and offering tenure to the new head of a program is pretty much standard procedure. Hannah-Jones was not asking for anything that virtually any newly hired person in a similar position wouldn’t expect as a matter of course. (It’s important that she was still offered the job; had they thought the appointment beyond the Pale, the trustees could have denied the appointment altogether.)
It’s a legitimate argument that Hannah-Jones shouldn’t have been offered the job to begin with. But once that offer is made, the expectations and rules change. I’d argue that the trustees should be under roughly the same kind of ethical pressure as, say, a voter in the Electoral College: you’re technically allowed to do what you want, but… don’t.
The flip side, of course, is that the presumption always rests with the status quo, so once the denial happened, overturning that negative decision was made more problematic since the burden of proof had shifted.
Third, tenure is awarded to faculty, not to administrators. Granting tenure (again, unless there’s something well out of the ordinary here) obligates the university to retain Hannah-Jones on the faculty, but not in a leadership position. (I’m not certain about how this works with respect to an endowed chair, so don’t quote me.)
Would I have voted for Hannah-Jones to get the job to begin with? Nope. Do I think the initial denial of tenure was racist? Nope. Do I think Hannah-Jones comported herself professionally throughout the process? Nope. But once she was offered the job, do I think the trustees should have denied the tenure application which would have been reasonably perceived by all and sundry as part of the compensation package from the beginning? Nope. Because, as in the cases of Presidents Trump and Biden, one or the other (or both) of whom virtually everyone disrespects, the job deserves respect even if the individual doesn’t.