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Fever Swamp

UNC Played Itself

Nikole Hannah-Jones leaves the school with exactly what it deserves: Nothing.

Associação Brasileira de Jornalismo Investigativo

On Tuesday morning, Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones announced she had accepted a position as the “inaugural Knight Chair in Race and Reporting at Howard University,” bringing to a close the painfully stupid saga initiated by the University of North Carolina’s politically motivated effort to deny — and then conspicuously offer — the 1619 Project creator a tenured position earlier this year.

“I have decided that instead of fighting to prove I belong at an institution that until 1955 prohibited Black Americans from attending, I am instead going to work in the legacy of a university not built by the enslaved but for those who once were,” Hannah-Jones said in a lengthy statement explaining her decision to reject UNC’s too-little-too-late tenure offer.

“For too long, Black Americans have been taught that success is defined by gaining entry to and succeeding in historically white institutions,” she continued. “I have done that, and now I am honored and grateful to join the long legacy of Black Americans who have defined success by working to build up their own.”

This is, of course, a major coup for Howard. The school has already reaped tens of millions of dollars from donors keen to fund her new position, as well as that of fellow journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates, who is set to begin teaching in the school’s College of Arts and Sciences. And in part, this is a story that extends beyond Hannah-Jones, and into the North Carolina GOP’s takeover of the university system as a whole. We’re only five years into the state’s Republican-led effort to strip the Democratic governor of the ability to appoint members to the UNC Board of Trustees, and it’s already clear that the NCGOP’s effort has begun to pay dividends.

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Or has it?

Hannah-Jones’ rejection of UNC is an incredible moment for UNC. Not only has the school very publicly shit the bed by not offering one of the most talented, high-profile public thinkers in the country the bare minimum of academic respect, but now, after all the shouting and fighting and extremely well-deserved criticism they’re left with absolutely nothing to show for it. UNC’s own faculty have publicly called their employer’s decisions “racist.” Some have left the school altogether. The egregious kowtowing of UNC’s Board of Trustees to the whims of its megadonors has been laid bare for the public to see. And all for what? In the end, UNC managed to fail at landing a major academic hire, exposing itself as a tool for the conservative elite in the process. Even the school’s belated about-face to finally offer Hannah-Jones the tenure they’d initially denied — and which she ultimately turned down on Tuesday — was a sign of panicked weakness on the part of an institution scrambling for PR damage control.

“In the case of my tenure, the university has, begrudgingly, done the absolute minimum,” Hannah-Jones said in her statement. “In a split vote, it did what it was supposed to have done 7 months ago and, in doing so, many believe the university has resolved the issue. It has not.”

Despite it all, UNC is not irredeemable. Hannah-Jones herself listed a series of steps the school could take “if the leaders at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill sincerely wish to redeem themselves [and] to live up to the university’s status as the people’s university.” They’re good ideas, and include concrete actions like providing transparency around her tenure process, and committing to “recruiting, supporting, and retaining Black faculty.” But it’s hard to see a school system that’s already shown its ass as answering to the highest bidder above all else as being the sort of institution that would actually take the steps necessary to create a more inclusive, equitable place. And if they don’t take those steps, the Nikole Hannah-Jones has left UNC with exactly what it deserves: absolutely nothing.