Speaking of qualifications

Published May 27, 2021

By Thomas Mills

In the Carolina Journal this morning, John Hood made a spirited defense of the UNC Board of Trustees that is under fire for not offering tenure to Nikole Hannah-Jones. Hood takes on critics who declare the decision was racially motivated and, instead, notes that Hannah-Jones has been a controversial figure who, he asserts, has been sloppy in her journalism and when questioned, “she dodged, weaved, and personally smeared her critics.”

When it came out, I read parts of the 1619 Project. I certainly didn’t read it all. The project had articles written by a lot of prominent and thoughtful writers and academics. I disagreed with some points and heartily agreed with others. I also knew that anything that controversial was bound to get attacked.

The project, though, will survive the controversy over Hannah-Jones tenure because it brought to the fore a re-evaluation of the American story that is long overdue. It also triggered conservatives who are loath to accept any criticism of our country or any alternative interpretations of our history. They are very content to have the story of our country dominated by White male protagonists with token women and people of color playing supporting roles, much like the modern Republican Party.   

 The Board of Trustees that refused to offer Hannah-Jones tenure is made up of ten white men, one African American woman, and one White woman. I would argue that they lack the necessary perspective to oversee a public university in a state that is more than half women and 22% African American. Given the history of the UNC Board of Governors and UNC Board of Trustees in recent years, they certainly lack credibility to make an honest assessment of Hannah-Jones. The BOG offered $2.5 million to a group of neo-Confederates to take possession of Silent Sam and the UNC Board of Trustees didn’t seem to object. Talk about bad judgment.

Unlike Hood’s assertion about liberals, I don’t believe Nikole Hannah-Jones was denied tenure because she is too liberal or because she is Black. I believe she was denied tenure because she began a conversation that will force people, especially White men, to confront a history that has systematically denied freedom and opportunity to African Americans and women in this state. They do not want to question whether they are deserving of their positions and stature or whether the circumstances of their birth offered them unfair advantage. 

 I don’t want to get into the debate over whether Nikole Hannah-Brown deserves tenure along with her Knight Chair at the UNC School of Journalism and Mass Communication. I’ll leave that up to the academics who understand those decisions and criteria far better than me. I will question whether a board made up predominantly of politically connected White men without academic credentials themselves is qualified to make a decision about Hannah-Brown’s tenure. And I certainly question their motivations.