Editor’s Note: Nicole Hemmer is an associate research scholar at Columbia University with the Obama Presidency Oral History Project and the author of “Messengers of the Right: Conservative Media and the Transformation of American Politics.” She co-hosts the history podcasts “Past Present” and “This Day in Esoteric Political History” and is co-producer of the new podcast “Welcome To Your Fantasy.” The views expressed in this commentary are those of the author. View more opinion articles on CNN.
“Politics.” That’s how one member of the board of trustees at the University of North Carolina summed up to NC Policy Watch the decision to deny tenure to Nikole Hannah-Jones, a New York Times reporter recently hired to fill the university’s prestigious Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism. After a rigorous yearlong review process, Hannah-Jones had been enthusiastically recommended for tenure by faculty and administrators, only to have it denied by the board in an unprecedented action.
The official reason the board gave for its decision was that Hannah-Jones was a “non-academic” – a statement that makes little sense since the chair to which she was appointed was designed to attract professional journalists rather than scholars. And there Hannah-Jones has more than enough credentials. In addition to her master’s degree, which she earned at UNC’s journalism school, Hannah-Jones has racked up just about every award imaginable in her nearly 20 years in journalism, including the MacArthur Foundation Fellowship (known as the Genius Grant) and the Pulitzer Prize. This year she was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. She was also the driving force behind The New York Times Magazine’s 1619 Project, which has put her directly in the crosshairs of the conservative movement.
That political opposition to her work, more so than any quibble with her qualifications, provides a better explanation for the decision to deny Hannah-Jones tenure. According to the board member, who was granted anonymity, since the university announced in April that it had hired Hannah-Jones, the board had experienced intense political pressure from those who have deemed her a threat for her work on racial inequity and racism in the United States. The University’s board, which according to the Raleigh News & Observer and an email from the dean of the journalism school to faculty, has authority to approve all tenured positions, but has not made a public statement about political pressure over Hannah-Jones’s appointment.
That pressure, and the way the board responded, illustrates the way conservatives often wield power in higher education. For as long as the right has been complaining about the pernicious influence of liberal professors, they have been seeking not only to pressure universities from the outside, but to empower the repositories of conservative strength within institutions of higher learning.
Caricatures of higher education as bastions of liberal politics have been around since at least the mid-20th century. The focus first landed on leftists, as the Red Scare triggered fears that communists had infiltrated universities and were indoctrinating students. That led to the persecution of left-leaning professors, an effort led not just by conservatives but by liberals as well. But the conservatives who helped purge the professoriate had their eyes not just on leftists but liberals too, believing there was a slippery slope that began with New Deal politics and Keynesian economics, then slid inevitably into socialism, then communism.
That was the premise behind William F. Buckley Jr.’s first book, “God and Man at Yale,” which he published in 1951. In it, he attacked the university, his alma mater, for what he saw as its descent into secularism and liberal economics. His proposed solution revealed what he saw as the conservative core of the institution: its alumni. Believing they would be better shepherds of the school’s future than its administrators and professors, he made a case for alumni control, encouraging Yale’s graduates to withhold all donations until the school changed its curriculum and faculty to meet the donors’ demands.
Buckley’s book crystallized the conservative concern over higher education that has become a template for generations that followed. The movement would remain obsessed with universities as hives of liberal power – power they sought both to expose and diminish. Dartmouth College in the 1980s demonstrated how that operation worked. The Dartmouth Review, a conservative campus newspaper launched in 1980, had the backing of conservative professors on campus (yes, there are conservative professors), as well as powerful Republican politicians – Jack Kemp and Pat Buchanan served on its advisory board – and a conservative alumni network that often coordinated with the paper. It also served as a launching pad for future attacks on universities: Review editor Dinesh D’Souza would write the bestselling book “Illiberal Education” in 1991, a broadside against multiculturalism and affirmative action in higher education.
That book was part of an effort to publicly litigate what is taught in the classroom and who is teaching it. Those battles are today being fought over critical race theory, an analytical framework that has been transformed into a boogeyman in right-wing media. In a number of states, Republican politicians are attempting to pass legislation that bars the teaching of critical race theory in elementary schools, high schools, and where they can, public universities.
The attack on Nikole Hannah-Jones is connected to this fight, as many on the right see the 1619 Project, which probed the centrality of slavery to US history and contemporary American life, as a tool for bringing critical race theory into the mainstream.
The efforts to eliminate the ability to teach critical race theory must also be understood as linked to efforts to legislate other parts of university life, which Republicans focused on increasingly in the past several years. That includes proposed laws targeting public universities and eliminating tenure, upping professors’ workload, slashing university budgets, and, in one case, forcing universities to hire right-wing professors (that bill never went into effect).
The budget cuts in particular have hastened universities’ reliance on nontenured faculty, who often are on contract and can be easily dismissed if they cross administrators, legislators, or boards of trustees. Nor is this hypothetical: At Collin College in Texas, an investigation by the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) found that a Republican state legislator texted the college’s president, upset at history professor Lora Burnett’s snarky tweets about Mike Pence. Shortly thereafter, Burnett’s contract was not renewed. That case, and Collin College, are now under investigation by both the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education and the AAUP. (Collin College has not commented about the investigation; Burnett, who called the AAUP’s investigation of the college “amazing” given how few cases they investigate, told the Dallas News, “Professors can’t teach freely inside the classroom if they’re afraid that their utterances outside the classroom are going to be monitored and punished. It creates a climate of fear.”)
As the cases of Nikole Hannah-Jones and Lora Burnett show, universities are hardly free from conservative influence. Because the right has spent the last 70 years arguing that higher education is irredeemably liberal, that means such influence often strikes at the very basis of those universities, including the cornerstone of intellectual production and higher education, academic freedom.
Higher education is in desperate need of reform. It faces serious challenges of access, affordability, funding and barriers to workforce unionization – all of which have been exacerbated or put into sharper relief by the Covid-19 pandemic. But rather than using politics or policy to solve these issues, the right has decided to double down on culture wars, ensuring that those challenges will only deepen in the years to come.