The Volokh Conspiracy

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Campus Free Speech

Regarding Nikole Hannah-Jones and the University of North Carolina

Conservatives should be fighting to open universities up, not to close them down


At the Chronicle of Higher Education, Sean Wilentz and I have an essay arguing that if reports are true that the board of trustees at the University of North Carolina put the kibosh on a tenure offer to Nikole Hannah-Jones, then those who care about preserving academic freedom should object.

The question is not whether Nikole Hannah-Jones should have been offered a tenured position in the journalism school at a university. My Princeton colleague, Sean Wilentz, is a a man of the left and a historian of American politics and he has been among those who have raised red flags about the quality of "The 1619 Project" that won Hannah-Jones a Pulitzer Prize. There are plenty of good reasons why a member of the faculty might vote against extending such an offer. (Given the nature of journalism schools and the history of the particular position she was offered, the fact that she is a working journalist without a Ph.D. is probably not one of those good reasons.) Reasonable minds can disagree on whether Hannah-Jones would be a good hire for UNC, and those of us who might disagree can reasonably criticize the school for making a bad call.

The question is who ought to decide whether particular individuals should be hired for available faculty positions. The board at UNC has apparently taken the view that it should not rubber stamp such offers but should feel free to override the determination of the faculty and administration on individual personnel decisions. Nothing good can come of this.

Members of the boards of trustees of universities have no expertise to assess the quality of an individual's work and the potential contribution that a faculty member might make to the campus. They have no basis on which to assess whether the faculty have made a good or bad choice in a hiring or promotion decision from a scholarly perspective. What board members do have are political opinions and personal interests. If boards can block faculty hiring and promotion decisions, the inevitable result will be to shrink the range of acceptable ideas that can be expressed, taught and investigated on the university campus. Faculty hiring and promotion decisions will turn not just on peer review but also on the vagaries of political lobbying campaigns by activists. Peer review is hardly perfect, but it does not get better if a political body gets to second-guess the results.

Of course, faculty have not helped the situation. Universities are sorely lacking in political and intellectual diversity. Professors too often let their own political and ideological preferences drive their behavior. It would be a minor miracle if the faculty at a major university were to offer a tenure position to a comparable figure on the political right. It would be naive to imagine that politics did not figure into the faculty's decision to hire Hannah-Jones and that the faculty did not understand that in making such an offer they were themselves making a statement in the ongoing culture war. Under such circumstances, university professors should not be surprised if conservative voters lose faith in universities and conservative politicians strike out at universities.

Even so, those who seek to promote academic freedom, campus free speech, and greater intellectual diversity in academia should be seeking to expand and not to shrink the range of ideas expressed on college campuses. Free speech is not only for those with whom we agree. The principle requires tolerating those with whom we disagree. We do not improve the state of higher education by further politicizing the process of hiring and promoting faculty.

The Hannah-Jones situation is not the most egregious sin against freedom of thought in American higher education. She was still offered a five-year contract. She apparently accepted that offer. She will remain a loud voice in American political discourse, and she will be regularly feted on university campuses. Far more troubling and career-damaging decisions are made every day on university campuses across the country.

But the principle that trustees should not interfere in faculty hiring decisions was hard won and essential to establishing academic freedom in the United States. It would be all too easy for that principle to be eroded in our current polarized political environment. Setting aside that principle whenever we happen to disagree with what the faculty has done will only encourage the belief that faculty appointments should be treated as political spoils and that the scope of acceptable teaching and scholarship should be determined by politicians and mass public opinion.

From the piece:

If disagreements over whether an individual professor should be hired, promoted, or fired were resolved by boards, then the mission of the university would be corrupted. Public universities in red states and blue states alike would find themselves shrinking the acceptable range of scholarship and teaching. Faculty members at private universities would once again have to worry about whether their work might offend the moral sensibilities or economic interests of influential alumni, from any point on the ideological spectrum.

The sharp polarization of our politics threatens the foundations of teaching and scholarship, especially in areas of civics and American history. Efforts to create grounds where students can learn essential lessons about the structure of our constitutional government and the nation's past run afoul of clashing, strident political agendas. It is against that deplorable background that the trustees of the University of North Carolina have blocked this appointment.

Read the whole thing here.