You might think that people should be chosen for university faculty positions only if they have a strong record of teaching and scholarship. You might think that for a prestigious post at a flagship university, that would be all the more true.
That was in the old days. Now, the demands of politics and identity often override academic concerns. The appointment of Nikole Hannah-Jones to a chair in the University of North Carolina’s journalism school is proof of that. She was the mastermind behind the New York Times’ infamous “1619 Project.” Criticism of that project and especially her contributions have been sharp and non-ideological.
In today’s Martin Center article, Jenna Robinson examines this controversy.
A key point is the claim Hannah-Jones made that the American Revolution was mainly about protecting slavery. But she cited no evidence in support of that astounding assertion. Historians of the Revolution were quick to point out that the preservation of slavery had virtually nothing to do with the sparking of the rebellion in 1775.
Robinson writes, “In December of 2019, five historians, led by Princeton Professor Sean Wilentz, wrote an open letter expressing their ‘strong reservations about important aspects of The 1619 Project.’ The signatories were a politically diverse group: Victoria Bynum at Texas State University, James M. McPherson at Princeton, James Oakes at City University of New York, and Gordon S. Wood at Brown University. They called attention to serious factual errors in the project, including its central thesis that the American Revolution was fought to protect the institution of slavery:
These errors, which concern major events, cannot be described as interpretation or ‘framing.’ They are matters of verifiable fact, which are the foundation of both honest scholarship and honest journalism. They suggest a displacement of historical understanding by ideology. Dismissal of objections on racial grounds—that they are the objections of only ‘white historians’—has affirmed that displacement.”
Instead of acknowledging that her history was wrong, which would have pulled the rug out from under the whole endeavor, Hannah-Jones and the Times went into evasions.
It also turns out that members of the Pulitzer committee had strong reservations about awarding their Prize to Hannah-Jones, but were ignored.
Rather than forthrightly confronting the criticism of her work, Hannah-Jones has resorted to evasions, deleting of evidence, and personal attacks. Not what a university should expect of a faculty member.
Robinson concludes, referencing the recent decision to deny her tenure, “Celebrity has a powerful allure. But the record of Hannah-Jones’ journalistic failures is more than enough to disqualify her from being considered for immediate tenure. The UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees was right to halt the process and ask serious questions before granting lifelong employment to someone who has not proven herself through her work. In doing so, the board was exercising its proper oversight function, not engaging in viewpoint discrimination.”