Tuesday, July 06, 2021

Politics in Academia and the Tenure Case of Nikole Hannah-Jones

 Day after the UNC system's board of trustees reversed itself and approved her tenure, Nikole Hannah-Jones did, in my view, the right thing: decline UNC offer.

Hannah-Jones’ treatment was driven by politics, economics and racism and was not about her accomplishments and her standing as a serious journalist. The faculty and administrators at the University of North Carolina affirmed her standing when they offered her a faculty position with tenure at the Hussman School of Journalism and Media and recognized her accomplishments by awarding her the Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism. Yet, the board, typically rubber-stamps recommendations from peers and university administrators, decided, in this particular case, to approve the faculty position but deny her tenure. Given that university boards generally consist of political appointees who may or may not have any background in relevant academic disciplines, it is inconceivable that the board can decide on the merit of one’s scholarship and academic qualification. That judgment is done by scholars in the same discipline and administrators in appropriate academic units.  This leaves politics, economics, and discrimination as the driving forces behind the board’s decision.

Hannah-Jones is not the only Black academic who was denied tenure in the last few months alone. Harvard University also denied Dr. Cornel West tenure. What is striking about this case is the fact that Dr. West had a tenured position at Harvard before. He left his tenured position in 2002 after then Harvard president, Lawrence Summers, depreciated his “scholarship, his commitment to teaching, and his political advocacy.” It should be noted that this is the same Summers who argued that women are underrepresented in the sciences not because of historical discrimination, but because women underperform in math and sciences because of biological difference when compared to men.

We must consider these cases in the context of academic positions and the power structure within the system. First, it should be noted that almost three-quarters of all US faculty positions are off the tenure track and more universities are moving to limit tenure-track positions and replace them with contract laborers. Second, as the US Department of Education data on the makeup and salaries of faculty members in higher education show, Black persons and people of color are severely underrepresented and underpaid compared to white persons. In fact, most cases of tenure-denial or notices to that potentiality in the last 30 years have impacted people of color and rarely impacted white persons, especially white men.

Nikole Hannah-Jones will not be the last Black person who will face discrimination. The system as is will likely produce the same outcomes. It was the right decision to fight the denial and it was the right decision to decline the offer after the denial. The series of events underscored the corrupt nature and highly politicized processes in academia. Had Hannah-Jones accepted tenure after she was denied it, it would perpetuate the idea that the system works: it was an error that was fixed, and the system works since Hannah-Jones eventually received tenure. That is not true. The decision was reversed only because of public pressure and only because of the stature of Nikole Hannah-Jones. Anyone else who deserve tenure but lacks the stature, standing, and connections of Nikole Hannah-Jones, but happens to be a person of color will not be able to force a university to reverse itself.

Changing the system will require acts of courage from the persons who experience discrimination and systemic exclusion to refuse to legitimize the system as is, expose the social groups who benefit from it, and reveal the actors who designed it.


Read the news coverage of this case Here and Here.

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