When Nikole Hannah-Jones announced this week that she will not accept the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s belated offer of a tenured position in its journalism school, the news landed in on the Chapel Hill campus like the sound of the other shoe dropping.
As she wrote in a statement released Tuesday, Hannah-Jones had looked forward to fulfilling the role of Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Reporting in the way that Susan King, dean of the university’s Hussman School of Journalism and Media, had outlined for her. “Our country was undergoing a racial reckoning, and she talked about the moment we are in and how important it was for the upcoming generation of journalists to have the knowledge, training, historical understanding, and depth of reporting to cover the changing country and its challenges,” Hannah-Jones recalled.
But now her voice will not be heard here. This outcome seems to have been precisely the hope of the university’s trustees in avoiding the tenure vote—twice—before it was forced upon them last week. UNC’s politically appointed leaders seemed skeptical of the kind of journalism Hannah-Jones practices—journalism that disrupts historical structures of knowledge by insisting on the centrality of Black experience to American life. “The Board of Trustees wanted to send a message to me and others like me, and it did,” Hannah-Jones concluded in the statement.
This episode recalls an earlier time when the university clashed with UNC’s political leadership over a racially motivated suppression of speech. In 1963, the state legislature passed what came to be called the Speaker Ban law, which aimed to prevent members of the Communist Party, those who advocated the overthrow of the federal or state constitution, or anyone who had pleaded the Fifth Amendment to evade questions about subversive activities from speaking at publicly funded universities, including UNC. Although it was defended as a necessary attempt to prevent the spread of communist ideas, the deeper reason for the 1963 Act to Regulate Visiting Speakers was the suppression of the Black struggle for liberation. The 1960 Greensboro sit-ins and subsequent protests led rural white legislators in North Carolina to sense an immediate and escalating threat to their status. Latching on to still-potent McCarthyite sentiments, they maintained that Communist agitators were secretly stirring up the trouble. During the final hours of the 1963 legislative session, in a stealth move of their own, they swiftly passed the ban.
In defiance of the law, in March 1966, a broad coalition of students led by the UNC chapter of Students for a Democratic Society invited two speakers to give addresses at McCorkle Place, the quad at the heart of the historic Chapel Hill campus. Frank Wilkinson, a communist activist, and Herbert Aptheker, an outspoken Marxist historian of American slavery, were each set to appear, but when police intervened, each complied by moving to the town side of a low stone wall that borders McCorkle Place. Weeks later, the coalition challenged the Speaker Ban in court, and in early 1968, a three-judge federal panel declared it unconstitutional.
After the Speaker Ban controversy, UNC–Chapel Hill regained its footing as a welcoming home for free inquiry and progressive thought. In some circles its reputation had never been lost, thanks largely to the leadership of William Friday, who as UNC president had worked with the students to dismantle the ban. Answering a critic, he wrote that his objection to the law did not stem
from any desire to have Communists speak to our students. Rather, it follows from the acceptance of the principle that in any university worthy of the name students and professors must have the freedom to inquire, to study, and to consider. It is also founded on the fundamental American idea that truth will prevail only where there is freedom to expose falsehood and error to impartial investigation.
In the spirit of his mentor Frank Porter Graham, UNC president from 1930 to 1949, Friday defended free speech as essential to a working democracy. Indeed, throughout the last decades of the 20th century, UNC–Chapel Hill enjoyed a reputation as the liberal flagship university of a progressive southern state.
History doesn’t repeat itself, but, as the saying goes, it tends to rhyme.
With the controversy over Hannah-Jones’s tenure, the issue of free speech clearly emerged from the crucible of racial conflict. Because the controversy centered on the board of trustees’s refusal to honor a tenure recommendation that had passed up through the highest level of university governance, it struck at the heart of academic freedom even more deeply than a selective ban on visiting speakers. An echo of the Cold War threat even survived in the shadowy association of Hannah-Jones’s thought with “critical race theory,” an opaque academic term that the right has exploited to impute Marxist overtones to the teaching of unpleasant racial truths coursing through American history. As with the Speaker Ban, credit for bringing the controversy to a head belongs to a broad coalition of students, professors, and their allies. Lamar Richards, who as UNC student body president holds a seat on the board of trustees, used his position and his voice as a Black man to compel the June 30 special meeting at which Hannah-Jones’s tenure was approved.
But a critical difference underscores the higher stakes of the Hannah-Jones controversy. While on its face the Speaker Ban law was framed to force communist witch-hunts, its surface justification masked two layers of deeper truth: the communist threat was a stalking-horse for race; and “race” was shorthand for the clear and present danger that Black people posed to white spaces—white businesses, neighborhoods, campuses.
The Hannah-Jones controversy threatened to draw resistant whites further: into an honest reckoning with the lived reality of Black experience. The controversy certainly involved the presence of a Black person in a largely white environment—Hannah-Jones’s tenured presence in the journalism school. But it was also about approved and disapproved ideas about Black people and Black history.
Hannah-Jones participates in a controversial new movement in the practice of journalism. Her relentless determination is to investigate the impact of slavery on “nearly everything that has truly made America exceptional,” as she wrote in the introduction to the 1619 Project, which she directed for The New York Times Magazine, and for which she won the Pulitzer Prize. These very qualities attracted the interest of UNC’s journalism school—and left her vulnerable to right-wing attack. Set against the historical whiteness of mainstream journalism, an explicit focus on Black experience and perspective challenges long-held ideals of journalistic objectivity. Conservative white newspaper owner Walter Hussman, the source of a $25-million naming gift to the UNC school of journalism, reportedly questioned whether Hannah-Jones was capable of subscribing to his core journalistic values of impartiality, credibility, completeness, and the pursuit of truth.
Complicating her chances of receiving tenure, the board of trustees is far from a neutral jury. Its members are seated partly by the North Carolina General Assembly and partly by the board of governors (also chosen by the General Assembly), which oversees a system of 17 campuses. Since 2010, a Republican majority has pressured both boards to pursue an agenda hostile to the liberal values of higher education. Central to these values is a robust, uncensored flow of ideas. This principle is as ancient as Milton’s Areopagitica. It is as contemporary as the university’s insistence on Hannah-Jones’s right to teach and practice her methods of journalism without fear of reprisal.
Hannah-Jones’s decision to accept a tenured position at Howard University ends the latest chapter in the fight for conservative control of the university. The threat continues, however. Last month—even while the Hannah-Jones affair was claiming national headlines—the board of governors launched its own sneak attack. Without offering a reason, it withheld what should have been perfunctory approval of a reappointment to the board of UNC Press. Eric Muller—a tenured law professor who, as chair of the book publishing board, is credited with strengthening the quality of the press’s publications while diversifying board membership—was shocked to learn that he would not be reappointed.
Thanks to investigative reporting by NC Policy Watch, we know the reason. A distinguished civil rights scholar, Muller has dissented from a series of controversial positions taken in recent years by UNC’s political leaders involving race.
Five years after the board of trustees imposed a 16-year moratorium on the renaming of campus buildings—imposed after the university elected to remove a KKK leader’s name from an academic hall—Muller helped lead a successful effort to have the moratorium lifted. His research on antebellum state Supreme Court judge Thomas Ruffin’s secret life as a slave trader contributed to the removal of Ruffin’s name from a residence hall on campus. In the face of a state law against monument removal, Muller also argued loudly for university officials to take down Silent Sam, a bronze Confederate soldier who had stood sentinel on campus for 100 years, before protesters did it instead. He was among the first to smell a rat in a $2.5-million “sale” of the monument to the Sons of Confederate Veterans that was ultimately ruled illegal.
The retaliatory strike against Muller furthers “a larger strategy to remove dissenting voices from prominent positions across the UNC System,” a source told NC Policy Watch. Targeted are “dissenting voices”—in particular, voices dissenting from the conservative playbook on race. Muller is white. At stake is no longer the presence or absence of Black persons as such. At stake is the deeper threat that Hannah-Jones represented and professors like Muller amplify: the infusion into sustained academic and public discourse of narratives that truthfully present Black history and experience, threatening to rebalance the established racial order.
In pushing back to maintain this order, conservative politicians are willing to ride roughshod over time-honored principles of academic freedom. Those who care about the health of public universities as testing grounds for democracy would do well to take note.
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