HILL: University tenure and politics at UNC Chapel Hill

In this photo taken Monday, April 20, 2015 the Old Well is shown among the spring foliage on campus at The University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, N.C. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

Tenure at universities is like a lifetime appointment to the Supreme Court. If you like the philosophy of the person who gets either, you love it. If you don’t agree with them, then both tenure and lifetime appointments to the bench cause a lot of heartburn.

Nikole Hannah-Jones’s appointment as a professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has raised a lot of controversy, not only for her leadership of the “1619 Project” while working as a journalist at the New York Times but also for the decision not to grant her immediate tenure along with her appointment.

As per usual in these hyper-politicized times, there has been no discussion in the media about the generally accepted process of granting tenure in higher education or any context as to how hard people have to work to gain tenure status.

The controversy over her leadership of the “1619 Project” notwithstanding, it is highly unusual for someone, anyone, to walk in off the street in another profession and immediately be granted tenure as a full professor in any discipline without a Ph.D.

If all someone who graduated from UNC Chapel Hill has to do is say they want to be a full professor with immediate tenure and not go through the grueling ordeal of having to get a Ph.D in the first place, then count me in. I will go to Chapel Hill and talk about balancing the federal budget until everyone passes out cold in class but still be paid $180,000/year for the rest of my born days.

There were 4,085 professors at UNC Chapel Hill in 2020. 1,857 were either full professors with tenure or on tenure track. It is very rare to find any who do not have a Ph.D in their respective discipline, which costs a lot of money and many years to achieve. They have to prove themselves in the classroom and in their research for at least five years before being granted tenure in most universities.

Nikole Hannah-Jones does not have a Ph.D in journalism, history, political science or social justice. She is a reporter who was paid by the New York Times to produce and promote the “1619 Project,” an effort that has been roundly discredited by scholars who do have Ph.Ds in history and political science.

Every associate professor with a Ph.D currently teaching at UNC hoping and praying they will get tenure would love to have immediate tenure status bestowed upon them. They must be watching this debate with great interest.

Hannah-Jones may one day wind up being viewed as a social justice Einstein for having uncovered provable evidence that America was indeed founded solely because white men of British and European descent wanted to establish a slave-based society that would last for eternity. However, the one massive fly in the ointment of the “1619 Project” is the phrase: “All men were created equal” penned by none other than a slaveowner himself, Thomas Jefferson, and signed by 56 other white men, many of whom also owned slaves at the time.

They knew what they were signing. They were not stupid. They had been educated in philosophy, literature, Latin and Greek at the best universities in England and America.

They knew they were ringing the death knell for slavery in America. “All men” meant all men — black, white, or any color of skin from any walk of life. Once they signed that document with that immortal phrase in it, there was no walking it back.

The phrase “All men were created equal” has been used to establish free nations around the globe for the past 245 years. It is the most important political phrase ever written in human history.

If those 56 men wanted to ensure America would be like almost every other nation before them that embraced the institution of slavery — including China, Persia, tribes in Africa, the Vikings and the British, Spanish and Portuguese Empires — they sure made a colossal mistake when they signed the Declaration of Independence.

The day Carolina offers immediate full tenure to anyone on the conservative side of the spectrum such as the next Walter Williams or Thomas Sowell, then maybe there will be room for discussion. But they will have to have a Ph.D in economics, history or political science.

You can be sure of that.