Conservatives Control Public Higher Education: UNC-Chapel Hill Edition
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Conservatives Control Public Higher Education: UNC-Chapel Hill Edition

If a Pulitzer Prize, a MacArthur Grant, and full approval of faculty and administration review boards aren’t enough to secure tenure in a journalism program, then tenure really is dead.

I am, of course, talking about the case of Nikole Hannah-Jones, who had previously been announced as having been granted a tenured Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism at the University of North Carolina’s Hussman School of Journalism and Media, but who will now be working under a five-year contract instead.

As reported by NC Policy Watch, Hannah-Jones tenure candidacy ran afoul of a highly politicized board stocked with right wing conservatives who intend to bring the institution to heel in retaliation over Hannah-Jones’ Pultizer-winning New York Times Magazine 1619 Project a frankly bizarre bête noire for certain conservatives who cannot stomach an alternate lens being turned towards history.

This latest action is part of a pattern for the UNC Board of Governors, which previously forced out the system present and went on to kneecap the UNC-based Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity for nakedly ideological reasons.

I try not to spend too much time here talking about how I’ve been right,[1] but I cannot help but point to a post from five years ago where I declared what seemed obvious to me at the time, but is even more apparent now, that despite the politically liberal nature of the professorate, public higher education is “controlled by conservatives.”

Don’t take my word for it. The fact is that higher education boards are dominated by Republicans. As documented by Lindsay Ellis, Jack Stripling, and Dan Bauman, appointments of Republicans to boards outnumbered Democrats 2 to 1. Only  around 1 in 5 appointees are vetted in any meaningfully bipartisan way. 

Say, “but what about the libruls,” all you like, but their presence is immaterial to the larger operations of the institution. All those liberals were aligned in favor of Hannah-Jones receiving tenure – as had been customary to other appointments to similar positions – but the objections of the UNC Board required the fallback position of the five-year contract. No one is arguing that the decision is anything other than political.

At the time of that post five years ago, I said I hoped conservatives would treat these institutions well, acting in the spirit of the roots of conservative philosophies, but as has been well-documented, the activist Republican wing which dominates these spaces today is awfully radical. 

In addition to the Hannah-Jones situation, there was the recent resignation of University of South Carolina president Robert Caslen, who stepped down following the revelation that he’d plagiarized part of his commencement speech for 2021 graduates. Such a misstep might’ve been survived under other circumstances, but a highly politicized and partisan process controlled by South Carolina governor Henry McMaster that installed Caslen left him with little internal institutional support to fall back on. 

As reported by Jack Strippling, following Caslen’s appointment over broad objections among faculty, students, and some of the board members, McMaster’s chief of staff gloated over “stealing” the university presidency from Democrats. 

A similar process years earlier had placed former South Carolina legislature powerhouse Glenn McConnell as president of College of Charleston despite an outside search firm not recommending him as a finalist. McConnell served a relatively short and decidedly undistinguished term that primarily resulted in him receiving an improved state pension while the college tread water. 

In the past, I have lamented about conservative legislatures using state higher education institutions as “political playthings,” in which they demonstrate their culture war bona fides through light performative smackdowns, as the South Carolina legislature did when stripping College of Charleston of $50k of funding on account of “assigning a book on homosexuality to freshmen” after choosing Allison Bechdel’s Fun Home for its campus read. 

These skirmishes are annoying, but essentially harmless, and in context could even be seen as a form of debate. The counterblow to the pulling of the funding involved the soon-to-be Broadway cast of the Fun Home musical coming to campus for a performance, which was awesome. No serious harm was done and everyone got to publicly air their views.

This is different.

Whatever one thinks of Hannah-Jones and her work – and I am a long-standing fan – the actions of the UNC Board of Governors are demonstrably damaging to the institution. As judged by the standards of the position and previous precedent, there is no cause other than political animus to deny her appointment with tenure. The decision is nakedly political, and those pulling the strings do not seem to care.

The publicity is predominantly negative. The vast majority of the faculty and administration, including UNC Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz, have publicly objected to the decision. This is now a campus that will experience weeks and months of turmoil. Of course, the deep irony of all this is that the political meddling in her appointment points out even more strongly the necessity of Hannah-Jones' work. 

Because there is so much history, so much good feeling, so much potential, and so many resources invested, flagship institutions like UNC-Chapel Hill can withstand a lot of abuse without buckling, but they are not invulnerable.

Their weakest point is how they are governed. That seems like a problem to me.

If the ways governing boards are structured makes it impossible for them to act as the caretakers they must be, then those structures must be changed.

 


[1] Okay, maybe I do do this, but I could do it more, I swear!



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