One of the summer’s less predictable media firestorms has been the angst-ridden watch party concerning whether celebrity journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones would receive tenure along with a prestigious chair in the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s journalism school. The intensive, fawning coverage grew even more fervent after the University of North Carolina board of trustees ultimately offered lifetime employment to the ideological firebrand, only to have her pivot and announce she would instead join Howard University in a similar position.
Major media and academic influencers alike have hailed Hannah-Jones as a conquering hero for this decision, portraying her as a martyr who one-upped the ranks of racists intent on silencing the Pulitzer Prize–winning, MacArthur “genius” grant–winning New York Times reporter. The Chronicle of Higher Education’s postmortem gushed that Hannah-Jones hadn’t “idly wait[ed] to see if a group of mostly white men would, at long last, tell her she was good enough.” NPR explained that “her decision ignited a conversation on the opportunity for Black academics to flip the script on taking their talents to predominantly white universities.” And dozens of UNC staff members signed a statement claiming that “the appalling treatment of one of our nation’s most-decorated journalists by her own alma mater was humiliating, inappropriate, and unjust. We will be frank: It was racist.”
What the “Hannah-Jones is a martyr” narrative conveniently squeezed out, of course, was the raft of legitimate questions about suitability, character, and professional performance that appropriately apply to any individual — especially a non-scholar — being hired as a professor at a public university. The real question should not be why the UNC trustees had reservations about granting Hannah-Jones tenure, but why so many in media and academe chose to treat any criticism of Hannah-Jones as illegitimate and, well, racist.