The Board of Trustees (BOT) must set a date to review Ms. Nikole Hannah-Jones for tenure.
Over a week has passed since the BOT received the formal recommendation for her tenure, an action that has been publicly reported. Outside of Ms. Hannah-Jones, who now has legal counsel representing her interests, the UNC-Chapel Hill faculty have the most to lose in this situation. Yet, we are completely in the dark. The outcome of the Board’s decision will tell us, one way or another, whether our teaching, research and service are respected and valued, or whether our careers are now subject to ideological concerns of members of the BOT or those who appoint them.
Since this situation became public on May 17, outrage and fear have filled my inbox and my Twitter feed; faculty from every corner of the campus have written with their views. The fearful messages stick with me the most. One writer wondered whether the unsuccessful outcome of a promotion decision was based on the quality of their scholarship or outside political considerations. Another asked whether they could trust the tenure process at this institution.
As of last night, we know that a candidate for a position in the chemistry department has withdrawn from consideration because of her concern about this situation, raising concerns among other department chairs about their own recruiting efforts. At this point, the campus is being held hostage. To question, ignore or otherwise not address the question of tenure for Ms. Hannah-Jones, as the BOT has done, leads all of us in fields from medicine and basic sciences to the arts and humanities to question whether politicized aspects of our work will result in a tenure or promotion denial at UNC-Chapel Hill.
The exhaustive tenure process creates the foundation by which candidates are thoroughly vetted. No process is perfect, and there are pitfalls in the tenure system to be sure. But a tenure evaluation provides gracious plenty of perspectives on one person’s work, creating a balanced look at strengths, weaknesses, and predictions for future success and contribution. Tenure asks if a candidate is a strong teacher, an innovative researcher, a respected scholar.
In the case of a Knight Chair, the tenure question focuses on whether a practitioner in media and journalism has made significant and long-lasting contributions to the field. It has nothing to do with someone’s political or ideological beliefs. For those of us who spend hours poring over tenure decisions, the current circumstance begs the question: Are we wasting our time? Worse still, for those faculty currently under the year-long tenure microscope, the question of who will actually judge their work is added to an already anxiety-producing process.
Will their senior colleagues be judge and jury as expected? Or will an entity whose motivations are entirely opaque decide their academic fate? The only group that can answer that question is the UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees.
Ms. Hannah-Jones has said she will sue if her tenure case is not considered. The silence this week suggests that the BOT plans to call that question. But they should think beyond this one individual. Should it become clear that Ms. Hannah-Jones will not be given a fair hearing and vote as has every other candidate for the position she will hold, faculty will no doubt leave this university. Why stay when promotion or tenure may be delayed or denied because of someone else’s politics?
At the beginning of this controversy, I was asked about faculty leaving and I hedged my answer, hoping that somehow this circumstance would be quickly and positively resolved. But, given that three weeks out, we remain completely in the dark as to the trustees' plans and intentions and I am running low on optimism. As faculty, we must know where those who are entrusted with our careers and the well-being of our campus stand. To Chairman Stevens and the members of the Board of Trustees, the time has come to let the faculty know how you view us.
Set a date for the consideration of Ms. Hannah-Jones.
Mimi V. Chapman, MSW, Ph.D.
Frank A. Daniels Distinguished Professor for Human Service Policy Information, Associate Dean for Doctoral Education
School of Social Work
Chair of the Faculty, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
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