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A humiliating and damaging defeat for UNC and North Carolina

Nikole Hannah-Jones at a 1619 Project discussion in Detroit in 2019. Photo: Ken Coleman of the Michigan Advance

Nikole Hannah-Jones’s decision marks yet another tragic chapter in the right’s destructive war on a great university

So, it isn’t to be after all. Months after having pulled off the formidable accomplishment of recruiting one of the nation’s most accomplished and admired Black journalists to return to her alma mater and help lead the university’s widely respected journalism school into an even better and more relevant new era, UNC-Chapel Hill is back to Square One. Or maybe even Square Minus-one.

Nine out of 13 voters on the UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees may have grudgingly and belatedly agreed last week to confer the tenure on Nikole Hannah-Jones that had been awarded to all previous Knight Chairs in Race and Investigative Journalism at the school, but as Hannah-Jones disclosed this morning in an exclusive interview with Policy Watch reporter Joe Killian, that decision was, as the old saying goes, “a day late and a dollar short.”

Or make that “several days late and many dollars short.”

Instead of letting the absurd ordeal to which she was subjected slide and taking on a position at a school named for a reactionary funder and a university increasingly dominated by the pals and cronies of Republican politicians – a place at which faculty members and students of color have long and repeatedly lamented the kind of second-class citizenship they must frequently endure and at which even widely-celebrated and tenured professors like Eric Muller and Gene Nichol must constantly watch their backs lest they run afoul of the Art Pope’s keystone cops of academia – Hannah-Jones will be taking her talents to the nation’s capital and an even higher-profile position at Howard University.

Major national funders, including the Knight Foundation, have already pledged more than $20 million to lure her and another celebrated Black journalist, Ta-Nehisi Coates, to the Washington, DC HBCU.

In some ways, of course, it’s hard not to smile and take a perverse satisfaction at the in-your-face nature of this morning’s announcement. If ever there was a group of university leaders that deserved to be told where to go in no uncertain terms and suffer a humiliating defeat that will redound in headlines across the nation, it is the collection of errand boys and girls that the state’s sclerotic GOP establishment has dispatched to do its bidding at UNC.

That the defeat was also premised to some degree on a measure of good, old-fashioned, big-dollar/highest-bidder capitalism – i.e., the very basis on which the ideological right so regularly assures us that all economic and policy decisions should rest today as we strive to run all public institutions “like a business” – adds yet another dose of bittersweet comeuppance to the news.

Good for Hannah-Jones!

But, of course, once one gets past the initial and instinctive “serves the knuckleheads right” reaction to today’s announcement, the only accurate assessment to be rendered is that it is yet another instance of farce ending in tragedy at UNC.

Simply put, UNC desperately needed (and still needs) a Nikole Hannah-Jones (and many more inspiring voices like hers) to help transform and modernize a university that once stood out for its efforts to promote racial integration and social progress, but that has since retreated into the shadows in those fights.

Especially over the last decade as the political right has asserted and consolidated control over state government and put a hold on even the incremental progress that had been in motion, the nation’s first public university is increasingly (and perhaps rightfully) seen by more and more Americans as just another reactionary outpost of the Old South — a place where the Confederacy still looms large and students of color are mostly valued for what they can contribute to the big money sports teams.

So what now? Where does the UNC System and its flagship campus go from here?

For caring and thinking people, the hope is that today’s announcement will serve as an alarm bell – another “red alert” warning of the dire need to reverse course. They know that UNC remains both a great university system full of brilliant, progressive, and visionary faculty members and students, and one of the best things about our state. The hope is that such an ignominious defeat will send UNC leaders and their bosses at the legislature scrambling with their tails between their legs.

Sadly, however, such a reaction seems unlikely over on Right-Wing Avenue. If the recent past is any indication – see the outcomes surrounding HB 2, voter suppression, gerrymandering, and K-12 school privatization – the conservative movement in North Carolina is not one that’s easily cowed by embarrassing setbacks. Rather, its leaders are a thick-skinned bunch that remains committed to a long game that’s about a radical overhaul of the societal contract – an overhaul that is about stifling voices like Nikole Hannah-Jones’s, not lifting them up.

No, for the political right in North Carolina, today’s announcement will be greeted mostly as an energizing validation of its deeply cynical and ends-justify-the-means campaign against teaching the truth about race and American history.

And while one fervently hopes Hannah-Jones’s new position a Howard will provide her, Coates, and their new colleagues with an even more important and visible national platform from which to promote the truth, things in North Carolina likely just got a little tougher.

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