Politics

The Nikole Hannah-Jones Saga Is Playing Out in GOP Legislatures Across America

Nikole Hannah-Jones smiles on a red carpet
Nikole Hannah-Jones in New York on June 19. Monica Schipper/Getty Images

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Make no mistake, the Nikole Hannah-Jones controversy at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is a political story. Hannah-Jones, who has won just about every major journalism award, including a Pulitzer and a Peabody, seemed like a shoo-in for tenure at the university’s Hussman School of Journalism and Media. She had the support of her colleagues. She would have been the first Black Knight chair at the school. But her tenure was held up by a university board composed of political appointees. It created a standoff that ended just this week, when Hannah-Jones announced that she would not be joining UNC after all, but taking a tenured position at Howard University instead.

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According to Joe Killian, an investigative reporter at NC Policy Watch, this scandal was years in the making. He traces it back to Republicans taking control of the state government a few years back and going after the UNC system for perceived liberal bias. On Thursday’s episode of What Next, I spoke to Killian about the university’s history of racism and what the Hannah-Jones saga has in common with fights playing out in state legislatures and public education systems across the country. This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

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Mary Harris: Years before this dust-up with Nikole Hannah-Jones, the UNC board was already pushing out school administrators they thought weren’t conservative enough. You’d show up to report on board meetings for the public universities and just watch the tension boil over.

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Joe Killian: They were incredibly contentious. Board members themselves were fighting amongst one another. They were at odds with faculty, with leadership at the campus level.

Like screaming matches?

Oh, yeah, protests, screaming matches. The board of governors defunded some academic centers at UNC schools that they didn’t like and thought were too liberal. Some of it is generational, some of it is ideological. Some of it is that these boards don’t look anything like the campuses or the system or even the state. They lean heavily white, heavily male, heavily conservative. Right now in the UNC board of governors there’s one Democrat on the entire board.

I’m curious whether you see what’s happening in North Carolina as indicative of something larger that’s going on in other places too.

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Oh, absolutely. At public universities all over the country, there is this struggle because there is not agreement about what higher education, public higher education, should be. There’s been this conservative idea that colleges and universities in America are really just manufacturing liberals and that what’s being taught there is not correct. You hear that all the time. You hear it in mainstream conservative publications, fringe conservative commentary, and increasingly you hear it from Republican lawmakers.

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So where did the trouble start for Nikole Hannah-Jones?

There was sort of a whisper campaign. She’s such a prominent person, such a prominent journalist, and the 1619 Project from the New York Times especially has been the focus of such political ire on the political right. Leading political figures were fomenting a sort of second satanic panic that has to do with critical race theory and the idea that white children are going to be taught to be embarrassed of their history and they want to make us ashamed of America. The president, Donald Trump, specifically denounced it.

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What did this whisper campaign look like?

I began hearing about it because there were some people in conservative circles who were talking about it. They were gearing up to prevent this or make it an issue. There was a conversation between Dean Susan King of the J-school and Walter Hussman. Walter Hussman is an Arkansas media magnate whose family for a couple of generations has owned and operated a lot of newspapers, television stations, in Arkansas.

His name is also on the J-school at UNC.

Yeah, because in 2018 he pledged $25 million to the school, and they named it after him. It’s now the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media, and they also agreed to etch what he calls his core values of journalism into a wall at the school. And these are primarily about objectivity and restoring faith in journalism—things that sound really good sort of on their face, if they’re abstract ideas. Once you begin to learn what Hussman thinks they are and how they could be weaponized to attack journalism he doesn’t like, it becomes kind of a different story.

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So Hussman calls the dean and says—

This is where it gets super strange. Hussman doesn’t call the dean. The dean calls Hussman and says, We’re thinking about hiring Nikole Hannah-Jones. He says, Well, I don’t much like that idea. Here are my concerns. I don’t like the 1619 Project. I’m concerned that historians have said that they have some problems with it. They think that there are ahistorical things in it. She says, Well, listen, it’s got its critics. They’ve answered those criticisms. We’re going to make the decision here ourselves. We think it’s a good one. He says, Well, I disagree with you. She says, Well, I disagree with you. I guess we’re going to have to respectfully disagree. Do they do that? Not so much. What Hussman does is contact the chancellor, Kevin Guskiewicz. He contacts the vice chancellor who’s in charge of charitable giving at the university.

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So he goes over her head.

Yeah. And he also sends emails that he sent to them to a member of the board of trustees who will ultimately be responsible for tenuring or not tenuring.

And then the board doesn’t vote on whether Nikole Hannah-Jones gets tenure.

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Yeah. Generally a slate of candidates come to the board and they vote on them, and it’s so rarely controversial. What they did was they just decided, well, not this one. We’re not voting on this one. And when there was pushback on that, like, well, why not? They were like, well, we’ve got questions. Questions about her. Well, what are your questions? How can we assuage them? Eh, we’re just not going to vote. We’re not gonna vote at this meeting, we’re not gonna vote at that meeting, we’re just gonna keep pushing it out. … We’re not taking a public vote on it.

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This is not uncommon in politics, and it’s easy to see why, because if they have a public vote, they’re going to have to reckon with her credentials. And she would easily be the most decorated journalist, maybe the most decorated faculty member, at UNC–Chapel Hill. It’s just gonna be very difficult for them to argue she’s not qualified.

Who is this board?

Here’s how it works. In North Carolina the governing board of the entire UNC system is the board of governors. They are directly appointed by the North Carolina General Assembly, which effectively means they’re appointed by whichever party is in power in the North Carolina General Assembly.

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Which right now is Republicans.

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Yeah. And Democrats in the General Assembly will tell you, no matter how many times they put forward somebody and say, hey, how about this person for the board of governors? That person’s not getting on the board. The slate of people who are getting on the board of governors are people that Republicans pick. Who are they picking, you might ask? Well, it is largely an assembly of former Republican lawmakers, active current Republican lobbyists, active current conservative activists, former heads of the North Carolina Republican Party.

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The board is overwhelmingly white. It is overwhelmingly male. It is overwhelmingly conservative. Now, that’s not the board that we’re dealing with in the Hannah-Jones case. That’s the board of trustees, which is the campus level. The campus level board is also made of political appointees. But in North Carolina, this is how it used to work: The governor appointed some members of the board of trustees. Some of the members were appointed by the board of governors, who are appointed by the General Assembly. When the last Republican to hold office as governor in North Carolina lost—Pat McCrory lost to Democrat Roy Cooper—the General Assembly stripped the governor of any appointment powers on boards of trustees so that it would just remain in Republican control.

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This is like what happened in Wisconsin when all of a sudden there was a Democratic governor and the Legislature was like, you know what, though? We think the governor should not have power anymore.

It’s certainly not the only state where it’s happened. In North Carolina this particular power is not the only one that’s been stripped from not only the governor, but also other Democratic politicians who come to power. In between when they’re elected and when they take office, the General Assembly steps in to take some of their powers away.

So how unprecedented is it for a board to punt like this?

It is extremely, extraordinarily rare that we get to this level and be voted down, but it’s not that that’s never happened in history. It is unprecedented, as far as we can tell, for them to just kill it in committee and for it never to come to a vote.

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After punting on this tenure decision twice, the university came back to Hannah-Jones a few months ago and offered her a five-year contract with the opportunity to secure tenure later on, as a compromise. At first Hannah-Jones opted to take the deal, make the best of it. She signed a contract. But then the whisper campaign against her got louder. A prominent conservative think tank in North Carolina published an article arguing that she shouldn’t be teaching at UNC at all. In the end, Hussman’s desire to keep Hannah-Jones off campus got overwhelmed by public pressure. UNC’s board was forced to hold a vote and it did offer her tenure. But she rejected it and went to Howard.

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Very recently at UNC there was a controversy over a Confederate statue. I wonder if you’d tell that story.

Yeah. There was a Confederate statue on the campus of the University of North Carolina, it was nicknamed Silent Sam, that stood on the university grounds for more than 100 years. It is a statue with a very shameful history. It is supposed to commemorate people who were students at the university who joined the Civil War in the cause of the Confederacy. It was placed there at the university, not right after the Civil War, but during the flush of the Jim Crow era, when people were really adopting this Lost Cause ideology and trying to glorify the Confederacy.

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And many of the students wanted it taken down.

For generations. Yeah. And had been working for decades to remove it in a way that was legal and followed all the rules, and they went through every process they could go through. The North Carolina General Assembly passed a law specifically to protect statues of this type from being removed even by the communities in which they stand, and at schools where they are and courthouses, and to make it virtually impossible to remove them. And so, stymied and unable to do this in a legal way, protesters toppled the statue on the campus. What happened after that was members of the board of governors, board of trustees, and conservatives in North Carolina said: put it back up. We would like to reerect a Confederate statue, now, in the modern era.

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And this was 2018?

Yeah. And so this was, for a lot of reasons, a very bad idea. People who are white supremacists are showing up, sometimes armed on campus to quote-unquote “defend the statue.” And it’s just a terrible, terrible idea to deal with this any further. So what did the university do about this? Well, in their telling, to try to get around this law, the state law that’s still in place that protects these statues, they made a secret deal with a neo-Confederate group called the Sons of Confederate Veterans, whereby the Sons of Confederate Veterans, who don’t have anything to do with the statue, assert that it is their property and that they’ve gotten rights to it from the Daughters of the Confederacy, which, in fact, was the group that so many years before had erected the statue, and that they’d be willing to take it off the university’s hands in a legal way if they would give them the statue and several million dollars.

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Technically for upkeep of the statue, but still over $2 million to maintain a Confederate statue.

That’s exactly right. And the leader of that group in a celebratory email said we’re going to use some of that money to build a headquarters for ourselves. We’ve won. Our allies in the UNC system and the board of governors and the General Assembly helped us do this. It was a huge controversy and the public only found out about it when it was a done deal and it had been announced.

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So what happened with Nikole Hannah-Jones is part of a pattern. There was some reporting that I think 70 percent of Black faculty had considered leaving the institution. And when you place what happened with Nikole Hannah-Jones into the wider context, you can understand why—that it’s just one more incident that might make that faculty feel unwelcome.

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Yeah. In fact a prominent tenured Black professor named William Sturkey in the history department told me he thinks that it’s probably closer to 90 percent. And there are other professors who are leaving and are publicly saying this is why. We’ve got professors who they were trying to recruit, who are top people in their fields, who’ve said, I’m not coming there, and this is why. So, yeah, it’s not a theoretical cost.

So for people who live in North Carolina, is the solution to this problem to vote? Like that’s the only way out, given the way the boards are appointed?

If you disagree with what they’re doing, yeah. If you agree with what they’re doing, then these are the glory days.

Walter Hussman likes to talk about objectivity in reporting. If I’m totally objective about this and I overlook any number of things that are ethically objectionable or outright illegal … then what I see is a political struggle between two sides: a conservative General Assembly and their political appointees and faculty, staff, alumni, and students of the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill and many universities in the UNC system who are more liberal or more progressive. They have competing interests and competing philosophies about the university and how it should operate and what it should stand for. And one of them is in power and one of them is not.

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