Today I use my small megaphone to amplify Nikole Hannah-Jones’ decision not to join the faculty of my doctoral alma mater, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. It is a shameful day to be a Tar Heel. Carolina’s loss is Howard’s gain. I hope for change in my state, and its flagship university — the kind that can only come from the pain of national public humiliation. Though I don’t have much reason to believe it’s forthcoming.
Her actual statement will probably not be read by many (it’s at the link), so I will excerpt it at length below. What could I possibly add.
“These last few weeks have been very dark. To be treated so shabbily by my alma mater, by a university that has given me so much and which I only sought to give back to, has been deeply painful. The only bright light has been all of the people who spoke up and fought back against the dangerous attack on academic freedom that sought to punish me for the nature of my work, attacks that Black and marginalized faculty face all across the country…
“I cannot imagine working at and advancing a school named for a man who lobbied against me, who used his wealth to influence the hires and ideology of the journalism school, who ignored my 20 years of journalism experience, all of my credentials, all of my work, because he believed that a project that centered Black Americans equaled the denigration of white Americans. Nor can I work at an institution whose leadership permitted this conduct and has done nothing to disavow it. How could I believe I’d be able to exert academic freedom with the school’s largest donor so willing to disparage me publicly and attempt to pull the strings behind the scenes? Why would I want to teach at a university whose top leadership chose to remain silent, to refuse transparency, to fail to publicly advocate that I be treated like every other Knight Chair before me? Or for a university overseen by a board that would so callously put politics over what is best for the university that we all love? These times demand courage, and those who have held the most power in this situation have exhibited the least of it.
“The Board of Trustees wanted to send a message to me and others like me, and it did. I always tell college students and journalists who are worried that they will face discrimination, who fear that they will be judged not by their work but for who they are or what they choose to write about, that they can only worry about that which is in their own control: their own excellence. I tell them all they can do is work as hard as possible to make themselves undeniable. And yet, we have all seen that you can do everything to make yourself undeniable, and those in power can change the rules and attempt to deny you anyway.
“Since the second grade when I began being bused into white schools, I have been fighting against people who did not think a Black girl like me belonged, people who tried to control what I did, how I spoke, how I looked, the work I produced.
“I have never asked for special treatment. I did not seek it here. All I asked was to be judged by my credentials and treated fairly and equally…
“At some point when you have proven yourself and fought your way into institutions that were not built for you, when you’ve proven you can compete and excel at the highest level, you have to decide that you are done forcing yourself in.
“I fought this battle because I know that all across this country Black faculty, and faculty from other marginalized groups, are having their opportunities stifled, and that if political appointees could successfully stop my tenure, then they would only be emboldened to do it to others who do not have my platform. I had to stand up. And, I won the battle for tenure.
“But I also get to decide what battles I continue to fight. And 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. For too long, Black Americans have been taught that success is defined by gaining entry to and succeeding in historically white institutions. 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.”
It also bears repeating that “Hannah-Jones traveled to Chapel Hill over the weekend to meet with the Carolina Black Caucus and student protesters to tell them in person because she “didn’t want them to feel betrayed.”
“She also told them she was grateful for their support and appalled at how they were treated at last week’s Board of Trustees meeting, when they were pushed out of the room by law enforcement after initially refusing to leave for a closed session.
“Hannah-Jones said she had not told UNC Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz and outgoing Provost Bob Blouin of her decision.
“But as for the chancellor and the provost, I didn’t, because I haven’t heard from them since this happened,” Hannah-Jones said. “So I didn’t feel the need.”