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Academic Tenure Is Broken. Nikole Hannah-Jones’s Case Makes That Clear.

Even when tenure decisions aren’t influenced by politics, they often exacerbate deep inequalities. And professors who do get tenure are untouchable.

Nikole Hannah-Jones
Alice Vergueiro/Abraji/Creative Commons
Journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones

Nikole Hannah-Jones is a renowned journalist, recipient of a MacArthur fellowship, and a winner of the Pulitzer Prize for journalism. Barely a month ago, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill announced to much fanfare that she had been appointed to the Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism in the Hussman School of Journalism and Media. That fanfare dissolved into jarring dissonance last Wednesday when the university’s board of trustees took the highly unusual step of overturning the Hussman School’s request that she be appointed with tenure, as past holders of the Knight Chair had been.

UNC’s academic community, in response, has publicly criticized the board of trustees, which is appointed by the majority-Republican state legislature, for having allowed political influence to interfere with academic processes in a way that, according to a letter signed by many of the journalism school’s professors, “unfairly moves the goal posts and violates long-standing norms and established processes.” Hannah-Jones’s work, in particular the 1619 Project for The New York Times Magazine, which won the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for journalism, had become a lightning rod for conservatives for its portrayal of slavery as a foundational element of the American state. Former President Trump even argued in a press conference that the project was unpatriotic.

It’s pretty hard to escape the opinion that the decision to overturn the school’s recommendation was indeed influenced by politics. But there’s also another issue in danger of being overlooked: namely, that the very “long-standing norms and established processes” that the UNC journalism faculty rightly complained were being violated are themselves egregiously vulnerable to abuse. These norms protect entrenched inequalities and privileges, and tend to reproduce in an academic microcosm the demographic divisions that have left our society grappling with the generational effects of intractable inequality.

The political hit job on Hannah-Jones’s tenure case is an instance of saying the quiet parts out loud. While we should decry the move itself and its damage to a justly decorated public intellectual, we should also pay attention to how the very institution of tenure now serves to exclude—and to ensure the continued marginalization of—large sectors of our society.

The idea of tenure is quite simple. The job of professors is to strive for truth, and this pursuit needs to be free of the influence of politics, money, or the fear of losing one’s livelihood. In practice, the institution has fallen a good sight from this noble ideal. Today the majority of those teaching at colleges and universities aren’t even eligible for tenure. Rather, the academic apparatus is upheld by an army of adjuncts given very little pay, no job security, and a great deal of work, often requiring that they shuttle between campuses or even pick up and move at the end of each year.

Those who have secured a highly sought-after yet increasingly rare tenure-track position—by rising to the top of their chosen fields of academic expertise during a decade or more of underpaid work as graduate students and, often, postdoc or adjunct positions—then face a grueling and anxiety-provoking stretch of time as an assistant professor, during which they will assemble the research, teaching, and service dossiers that will serve as the basis of their tenure decision. At the end of this probation period, their department solicits evaluations of these dossiers from experts in their field, considers those evaluations along with the work itself, and makes a recommendation. Depending on the university, that recommendation may be reviewed by one, two, or more committees before receiving the final approval of the president and/or board of trustees.

Should the outcome of this gauntlet be positive, the rewards are certainly stunning: a protection from termination that is, barring the most egregious offenses, almost absolute—in stark contrast to the startling insecurity suffered by their nontenured counterparts. Given the significant difficulty of the process, the attractiveness of the result, and the relative and growing scarcity of positions that are tenured, it’s unsurprising that those who enjoy tenure tend to guard their domain jealously. And such gatekeeping is, also unsurprisingly, often supported by university administrations that may see both obvious financial benefit in limiting access to potentially lifelong appointments and possibly a reputational benefit in having tenure at their institution be widely perceived as difficult to attain.

So what happens when a scarce privilege that is becoming ever scarcer is held by a small and relatively homogenous group, who are also largely empowered with deciding to whom to extend the privilege? It should come as no surprise that the answer ends up looking like an academic version of Nimbyism, where the haves, whether consciously or unconsciously, stack the deck to make entry into the upper echelons of their world harder for those whose worldviews, ideas, and approaches differ most sharply from their own. Such tendencies may in part account for the persistent gender and race gaps in academia, despite increasing numbers of women and underrepresented minorities entering at least some disciplines.

In some cases, scholars who come from underrepresented groups may use approaches or methodologies to which mainstream scholars are unaccustomed—critical race theory, postcolonial theory, queer studies, to cite only a few. This can sometimes lead the deciding bodies, which may skew older, whiter, and more male than the university as a whole, to regard their work as somehow trendy, ephemeral, or faddish. I have seen work in the humanities focused on cultural, ethnic, or gender identities be regarded as “political” and hence less objective, serious, or scholarly. And that’s in addition to the widely studied implicit biases based on identity alone, which can lead individuals to judge even a résumé differently depending on the name at the top of it.

Even if the committee charged with examining the scholar’s dossiers manages to be free of such attitudes, there is a high likelihood that at least some of the five to 10 senior faculty from around the country and the world who have been asked to read the candidates’ work may exhibit such bias. And especially at the most prestigious universities, in my experience, all it takes is one raised eyebrow to cause a committee to decide that denying tenure is the safer route.

If making it harder for marginalized scholars and approaches to become established is one potential side effect of our tenure system, protecting the privileges of older and more powerful faculty is the obvious corollary. In some high profile cases, older faculty members who have been credibly and repeatedly accused of harassment have, thanks in part to tenure status, remained in a position that continues to offer them access to and power over vulnerable students.

All of this brings us back to the case of Nikole Hannah-Jones. Hannah-Jones became a cause célèbre of sorts with the very first sentence of her introductory essay to the 1619 Project, when she wrote, “Our founding ideals of liberty and equality were false when they were written.” Conservative authors like Andrew Sullivan and Bret Stephens objected to this claim, the latter writing that “ideals aren’t false merely because they are unrealized, much less because many of the men who championed them, and the nation they created, hypocritically failed to live up to them.” Putting aside the fact that Stephens merely rephrased rather than refuted her argument, the more crucial point is that Hannah Jones’s essay caused the entire nation, conservatives as well as progressives, to pause and reconsider what it means to found a country, and what relation a country’s ideals should have to the historical realities of its founding. Such revisiting of a society’s basic narrative will always be controversial, will always be seen by established voices as “political,” and hence invite denigration as insufficiently rigorous.

In the event, while many historians were consulted on the 1619 Project, others objected to certain aspects of it in an open letter soon after publication. So the debate about the historical rigor of the 1619 Project was waged not only in a tenure committee but also on the pages of The New York Times and The Atlantic, and it is certainly not my intention to adjudicate it here. My contention is rather that the brazenly political way in which the UNC board of trustees “violated long-standing norms and established processes” in Hannah-Jones’s case should not blind us to how those norms and established processes themselves paper over and reproduce structural inequities and injustices—both in terms of the biases that help keep certain groups underrepresented and the enormous differences in privilege between those who enter tenure’s vaunted gates and those who remain outside. These are also, ironically, the very sorts of entrenched and normalized injustices that, on the larger, life-and-death stage of American history, Hannah-Jones’s courageous, narrative-changing brand of journalism is intended to make us see.