July 6, 2021

There’s a lot to love about the journalism school at the University of North Carolina.

Its student newspaper invokes both jealousy and awe within student media circles. Its students are perennial Hearst winners, considered the Pulitzer Prizes of college journalism. Its graduates are among the nation’s most notable journalists — people like Brooke Baldwin, Stuart Scott and Nikole Hannah-Jones.

So it’s been sad and hard to watch one of the nation’s preeminent programs cast into the villainous role as the school that once hesitated on granting Hannah-Jones tenure. That tenure was finally — and rightfully — granted Wednesday after a three-hour closed-door meeting of the UNC Board of Trustees, which had previously voted against extending her an honor that would both elevate her and protect her academic freedom.

It was an appointment that should have been a slam dunk, granted without prejudice to all previous recipients of her particular endowed chairmanship. But because Hannah-Jones is a Black woman whose groundbreaking “1619” multimedia project challenges conservative American views of our early history, her appointment became a lightning rod in America’s ongoing racial reckoning. 

The faculty of the journalism school strongly supported Hannah-Jones’ tenure appointment. The students there protested its exclusion from her contract. Everyone, it seems — from the provost to the chancellor to alumni to the faculty — wanted this MacArthur genius and Pulitzer winner in the classroom, impacting the lives and work of potentially hundreds of journalism students.

Almost everyone, that is. It was donor and journalism school namesake Walter Hussman whose emails about Hannah-Jones’ tenure paved a path all the way to the Board of Trustees.

Ultimately, they made the right decision. But their actions speak volumes about the workplace culture of academia. Despite a system of open meeting and records rules, the world of academic governance allows plenty of room for muddy waters — the natural enemy of transparency and journalism.

Even during the voting process Wednesday, spectators were physically and apparently violently forced out of the room so that the board could meet in closed session. There seemed to be little effort on UNC’s behalf to explain how Wednesday’s special meeting would operate. Doing so would have shown the kind of transparency that universities simply don’t seem to want to or feel a need to engage in.

This national spotlight on the process and bureaucracy inherent in academia feels a lot like a rotten log rolled over in the woods. The creatures beneath — unused to being exposed and examined — scramble, startled and alarmed that the outside world is shining a light down upon them.

I’m not saying university trustees are loathsome bugs. Often, they are highly regarded, powerful members of a university ecosystem who face continual pressure to maintain the high standards of their school. 

And American universities are expected to shoulder many burdens. They have to educate students, provide groundbreaking research and scholarship to advance our society, serve as a proving ground for culture changes in America, and entertain us with sports on the weekend — all while maintaining mini-cities that foster populations of young and vulnerable people. It’s a lot to ask. To manage it all, universities have added layers of administration and oversight. The result is a vast gap between that priceless spark of classroom engagement between teacher and student and the cold, corporate boardrooms of university trustees.

The public is seeing that gulf play out at UNC. Decisions made so often in a vacuum are now exposed for the whole world to see, and rightfully, to question. The university community, outside of the trustees, clearly felt that the actions of the trustees were out of line. In fact, their actions fit perfectly into the narrative that Black academics have decried for years — that universities are incredibly difficult spaces for them.  

The irony, of course, is that the public now knows about this situation in part because of journalism. The dogged reporting on this topic, originated by North Carolina Policy Watch, now extends to The Washington Post and CNN. Journalists young and old are flexing their investigative muscles as they navigate the murky world of university governance. And many of them learned how to do so from college professors with real-world experience. People like Hannah-Jones. 

UNC took an incredible opportunity for students to learn from a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, and let bureaucracy, abstract notions of power and fear over a culture war get in the way.

Let’s hope that Hannah-Jones and her soon-to-be students can get past this calamity — and get to kicking over more rotten logs.  

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This article was originally published June 30, 2021.

Correction: This column has been updated to correct the fact that the board never actually previously cast a vote in the tenure matter.

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Barbara Allen is the director of college programming for Poynter. Prior to that, she served as managing editor of Poynter.org. She spent two decades in…
Barbara Allen

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