Trustees | Tenure

Don’t Rush to Assume Politics Was Behind UNC Board’s Decision to Deny Tenure to Hannah-Jones

THE CHRONICLE OF HIGHER EDUCATION   |  May 25, 2021 by Michael B. Poliakoff

To the Editor:

Your recent article covering the decision by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Board of Trustees not to award tenure to Nikole Hannah-Jones misses a crucial point (“Her ‘1619′ Project Is a Political Lightning Rod. It May Have Cost Her Tenure,” The Chronicle, May 19). A university’s board of trustees is ultimately responsible for the governance of the institution and must ensure that a tenure appointment is based on time-honored academic expectations.

Charles G. Duckett — trustee and chairman of the university-affairs committee — was right: “Shared governance means people have different responsibilities. And shared governance does not mean that we just have to sit here and rubber-stamp everything that comes our way.” Effective leadership requires an active and deliberative board. Shared governance is not byword for deference, but rather describes an inclusive and transparent decision-making process the responsibility for which lies with the board.

University boards at times act as bulwark against abuses in the tenure process. In 2002, faculty peers at Brooklyn College sought to deny tenure to KC Johnson, an eminent teacher and scholar, on the grounds of a perceived “lack of collegiality.” Read, the thinly veiled political disaffection of his colleagues. The chairman of the history department would later state that this effort had been spearheaded by a group of “academic terrorists” within the department. After a public outcry, Johnson appealed the decision to the chancellor of the City University of New York system and was eventually promoted with the unanimous support of the CUNY board.

Hannah-Jones’s journalism has been criticized by a roster of America’s most eminent historians from both sides of the political aisle, and it is unapologetically incendiary. The retractions that have accompanied Hannah-Jones’s ‘magnum opus’ have been some of the most noteworthy in recent memory, particularly given that the project’s own fact checkers highlighted multiple inaccuracies prior to publication. In the case of KC Johnson, the board turned a biased political decision into an objective academic decision. Before rushing to judge the UNC board’s decision as “political,” it behooves us to entertain the possibility that they protected academic integrity and standards against fashionable campus politics.

Michael B. Poliakoff
American Council of Trustees and Alumni

This letter originally appeared in The Chronicle of Higher Education.


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