UNC supporters won one. But the fight's not over.

Published July 1, 2021

Observers on both sides of North Carolina’s political aisle could surely identify with the photo Nikole Hannah-Jones tweeted of herself enjoying a glass of bourbon. Progressives, to celebrate alongside her; conservatives, to drown their sorrows. For the first time in many years, UNC supporters won a victory over their enemies on the right-wing side of the state’s gaping political divide. The problem for those of us who stubbornly cling to our Tar Heel blue is that anti-UNC forces remain entrenched in state government.

Consider the vote for Hannah-Jones’s tenure. While the Board of Trustees approved her by a wide margin, four Trustees voted to, in effect, blow up the University by denying her the status she had earned through a long and illustrious career in the press. For Hannah-Jones to have been denied tenure would have brought down hellfire on UNC equivalent to the worldwide denuniciations North Carolina faced over its anti-trans law, HB2. If legislative bosses had to concede in the face of intense criticisms, at least a few of their wards were so loyal to extreme conservatism that they were willing to act like pyromaniacs.

Hannah-Jones appears likely to take the job at UNC, despite having received at least six offers from other universities that one must presume are not as badly afflicted by right-wing meddling. Her tenure will no doubt be eventful. As Professor Gene Nichol of UNC Law has experienced, outspoken progressive faculty members are effectively marked men and women in the new North Carolina. Nikole Hannah-Jones is an investigative reporter in the tradition of Ida Bae Wells, and cannot be expected to settle into a quiet life in the lecture halls and libraries of a public university. She’ll fight–and the Republicans who run this state will fight back hard.

 Every regressive actor that inflicted this crisis on UNC remains firmly ensconced in power. There will be turnover in the Board of Trustees, but these people will just be replaced by the same Board of Governors that put the current roster in place. For all we know, the next Board of Trustees will resemble the die-hard racists who voted against Hannah-Jones’s tenure more than the nine who tried to salvage what’s left of UNC’s reputation. Down the road in Raleigh, Senator Phil Berger remains the chieftain of an obstreperous and ardently anti-UNC legislature.

All of which is to say that UNC supporters have won a battle, for once, but the war over higher education remains a generational struggle. Multi-generational, actually: Nikole Hannah-Jones is in a direct sense the latest of a long succession of UNC scholars who have been targeted by the reactionary right. NCGOP icon Jesse Helms spent his entire career bashing the University of North Carolina. He was an ineffectual crank, but today his political heirs have their hands grasped on the levers of power with knuckle-whitening tightness. Welcome to UNC, Nikole Hannah-Jones. We need you.