University Tenure | Another Battlefront on Race and Equity in America

In late April, the University of North Carolina announced that Nikole Hannah-Jones, a Pulitzer Prize-winning correspondent for The New York Times Magazine, was being appointed as the Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism at the university’s Hussman School of Journalism and Media. The appointment would have seen her start teaching journalism as a professor in July, while continuing to write for The Times.

Instead of tenure, the indefinite academic appointment that makes it virtually impossible to terminate a professors, Hannah-Jones was offered a five-year contract as a professor bringing in a $180,000 annual salary, with an option to review her status for possible future tenure.

Hannah-Jones, who earned a master’s degree in mass communication from U.N.C. in 2003, was denied a tenured position after the university’s board of trustees did not vote on the issue of tenure despite the journalism department’s recommendation that it be granted to her.

In the aftermath, supportive U.N.C. staffers, students and high-profile alumni passionately railed against the board’s decision. On the flip side, her appointment drew strong opposition from right-leaning board members and other conservatives nationwide who expressed criticism and concern over Ms. Hannah-Jones’s appointment due to her involvement with — as the creator and leading voice of — The Times‘s 1619 Project, a thought-provoking and eye-opening initiative that took a new look at the history of the United States through the lens of slavery’s legacy.

The 1619 Project
The 1619 Project was named for the date, August 1619, when the first ship carrying enslaved Africans from what is today Angola in West Africa arrived in Point Comfort, Va. The series ignited fierce debate, with some historians taking issue with certain claims made in the project and a number of conservatives labeling it left-wing propaganda.

For her part, Hannah-Jones publicly stated that she refused to accept the position without tenure, had retained a lawyer and was considering filing a discrimination lawsuit against the university. Ultimately, the board reversed course, and at the end of June, voted to grant her full tenure — with nine members voted in favor and four against.

What appeared to be an amiable end to the dispute was anything but. Days later, Hannah-Jones dropped a bombshell, announcing she had declined U.N.C.’s offer and would instead accept a professorship at Howard University, the historically black university in Washington, D.C., as a tenured member of the H.B.C.U.’s Cathy Hughes School of Communications, where she will serve as Knight Chair in Race and Journalism, a newly created post at the school.

In another high-profile incident in academia this year, Cornell West, the perpetually popular celebrity professor, resigned from Harvard University after being denied tenure there.

The fiery African-American philosophy scholar, who was previously tenured at the school — and at its Ivy League counterparts Yale and Princeton — had held a dual appointment at Harvard Divinity School and the institution’s Department of African and African American Studies.

Dr. West, who graduated from Harvard in 1973, rose to national prominence with the 1993 publication of “Race Matters,” his best-selling book. He was recruited to the university’s faculty in 1994 as part of a “dream team” brought in to rebuild the African-American studies program, where he taught until 2002, when a dispute with the university’s then-president, Lawrence Summers, prompted West to leave Harvard for Princeton.

Harvard’s rejection of West for tenure led to a firestorm out outrage on campus, with graduate students mounting a petition drive, and the national conversation reigniting over the issue of race.

Last year at a university here in Western New York, a special task force on diversity, equity and inclusion was tapped to compile a list of recommendations to improve several areas of focus at the school.

According to an individual involved in the process, when asked if the only black male member of the group — a professor — could present the findings to the university, she was told by two white colleagues that in the interest of protecting him, “We don’t think he should read the report because he’s going up for tenure, and we don’t want any of the faculty to reject his tenure because they may not like the recommendations being made.”

The implication was that his career prospects would be under threat if he was perceived as having unpopular views on issues of racial equity — a hypocritical move by an institution of higher learning that pays lip service to the principles of fairness but simultaneously undermines it’s own official policies.

The female member of the task force took her concerns to the university’s director of diversity and inclusion, and in the end, the African-American professor read the report alongside white members of the task force.

But the battles being waged on university campuses large and small are just the tip of the iceberg that has been forcefully pulled into view.

Our country continues to grapple with confronting issues of racism and diversity, battle lines are being drawn in a culture war with skirmishes everywhere from news headlines to classrooms (hello, Critical Race Theory).

While big and small business are making strives to right the wrong of inequities by pouring millions into social justice causes and stepping up efforts to hire black and Latinx candidates, Republican-controlled legislatures across the country are working overtime to restrict voting access in ways the would hurt Black voters in future elections.

Racially charged events of the recent past and actions of the present have thrust conversations about race from the fringes to the center of the national consciousness, spilling into virtually every corner of American life.

To be sure, we are going through some serious growing pains as a nation, but at least there is dialogue and positive change.

We can only hope that progress will continue.

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