Before this week’s flap over the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill denying tenure to one of America’s top journalists in Pulitzer Prize-winning Nikole Hannah-Jones, and before state lawmakers in “red states” across America declared a broader jihad over whether students can learn about racism, there was the curious case of law professor Gene Nichol and his UNC project called the Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity.
In the early 2010s, Nichol traveled across the Tar Heel State with his students to get an up-close view of how poor people lived in a state with America’s 12th-highest rate of poverty and where a quarter of all children struggled with food insecurity. They proposed and debated solutions as North Carolina fell in thrall to a Tea Party revolt against governing. The law prof was also moved by what he saw and became a fiery advocate on the issue, writing a series of blistering columns criticizing the GOP-led state government in the Raleigh News and Observer.
But at the same time that Nichol was criticizing Republicans in the state legislature, those lawmakers were using their newfound power to take control of the UNC system, gradually replacing its board of governors with a cadre of GOP politicians, lobbyists and big-money donors. In 2015, those governors ordered the closure of the anti-poverty center and they didn’t stop there, also shuttering centers on two other UNC campuses for civic engagement and to study biodiversity — places where learning seemed a threat to modern Republicans’ assaults on voting, social welfare programs, and even basic science.
In a tone of academic understatement, the dean of the law school at Chapel Hill said at the time that closing the centers “contravenes core principles of academic free speech and inquiry.” But a right-wing war against freedom of thought in America was only heating up — and in 2021 things have gotten worse. A lot worse.
The decision by trustees at Chapel Hill campus to deny tenure that has been promised Hannah-Jones — and had been routinely awarded to all her predecessors — when she was hired for the prestigious Knight chair at the university’s Hussman School of Journalism might sound like a small-bore skirmish in America’s long-running culture wars. After all, the move didn’t prevent the New York Times journalist from accepting a five-year post at UNC. But stripping away the job security that comes with tenure was a powerful warning shot not just against Hannah-Jones, but in a nationwide battle over how issues around race will be taught to America’s young people.
And Hannah-Jones is at the epicenter of this renewed fight. Her 2019 effort called the 1619 Project — which she directed and for which she wrote the lead essay, which won that Pulitzer — asked readers to think of the fight for true freedom and democracy in America as not beginning with shots at Lexington and Concord but when the first slave ship arrived, 402 years ago. That radical rethinking of American history is like a dagger to the beating heart of white supremacy that undergirds the modern conservative movement, thumping louder than ever in the post-Trump era.
Just hours after the Chapel Hill trustees (and it absolutely should be noted that 11 of the 13 are white men, blocking tenure for a Black woman in Hannah-Jones) made their move, lawmakers in Texas dramatized the much broader threat to freedom of speech inside America’s classrooms. Early Saturday morning, state senators in Austin approved a bill that critics say would all but ban teaching about racism in public and charter schools. It would also ban any academic credit for “civic engagement,” another sign that the GOP feels threatened by young people taking part in democracy.
But I started this piece with 2015, and with the UNC governors (a broader group with control over the entire state system, and which currently has just one member who IDs as a Democrat) because it’s important to understand that the conservative war on knowledge started long before the ink dried on the 1619 Project. The only thing that’s really changed is the increasingly radical nature of this anti-intellectual agenda.
The American thought leaders who emerged from the carnage of World War II in the late 1940s — and saw an unexpected boost for the power and potential of higher education with the surprise success of the 1944 G.I. Bill that gave returning vets a free ride through college — understood that expanding liberal learning would be good for democracy, and hopefully for preventing World War III. The growth of college opportunity in the 1940s, ‘50s, and ‘60s — heavily through public state universities — reinvented the American Dream, but the nation’s Establishment hadn’t counted on the blowback. A generation taught to venerate democracy protested segregation and the Vietnam War — and triggered a right-wing backlash.
The godfather of that backlash was Ronald Reagan. The Gipper ran against campus radicals and the new “hippie” culture at the University of California’s flagship Berkeley campus to an upset victory for the California governorship in 1966, then began the push to impose tuition for what had been a mostly free system, then cut federal direct student aid after he was elected president in 1980. Increasingly conservative governors and state legislatures slowed taxpayer aid for universities and boosted tuition — a trend that accelerated dramatically after the Great Recession.
But North Carolina, although not alone, has been at the vanguard of a second-wave movement that coincided with the Tea Party era at the dawn of the 2010s. It sought to make Republican control of public universities much more explicit by naming party functionaries — often with no background in higher education, or any interest in its traditions — to control the boards that run these institutions. Indeed, the Tar Heel State placed the final exclamation point on its project in 2020 when lawmakers named Art Pope, the billionaire funder and so-called godfather of the modern right-wing movement in North Carolina, to the board of governors.
Over the last decade, these conservative university trustees have been a weight on campus administrators — occasionally ousting those who seem too committed to “political correctness” or the ideas that today are lumped together by critics as “wokeness” — and sometimes veered into micromanagement by cutting departments or moving against professors deemed too liberal, as UNC did in the case of Nichol.
A poster child for the modern right-wing politicization of college was the two-term Wisconsin governor — and Reagan disciple — Scott Walker. Under Walker, Republican trustees took unprecedented control over key campus hires and curtailed First Amendment rights. Walker even sought, albeit unsuccessfully, to change the University of Wisconsin’s landmark mission statement to make clear that college is not for a broad liberal education that graduates freethinkers, but to produce cogs for the machine of modern capitalism.
In 2021, college governance across America is a highly politicized mess, hardly a bastion of independent thought. As a New York Times report showed this weekend, even the question of whether to require that returning students this fall are vaccinated against COVID-19 largely hinges on whether or not a state is under the sway of Republican politicians, who’ve now managed to politicize even a simple matter of public health.
But the exploding battle over how — or, increasingly, whether — a true history of American race relations can be taught, from the historic confines of America’s oldest public university at Chapel Hill to your child’s fifth-grade classroom, is the existential war that decades of preliminary skirmishes have been leading up to. To a Republican establishment whose rule is increasingly based around defenses of traditional white supremacy and the patriarchy, the clear-eyed reality of free-thinking discussions around ideas like the 1619 Project isn’t just a threat to the long-standing social order of this country, but to their very being.
In fact, the survival of the American Experiment may depend on our ability to embrace an ideal that was discussed but never fully realized in the heyday of the democratizing G.I. Bill — that higher education (not just academic coursework but career training, civic engagement and more) must be a universal “public good,” supported by all of us. But that won’t mean much if we don’t also fight to make American education a place where ideas can be exchanged freely. The move against Hannah-Jones has exposed the real “cancel culture” in America — and the forces behind it.
George Orwell famously wrote that “who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.” In North Carolina, Texas and too many other places, anti-free-thinking Republicans are desperately seeking to cancel Hannah-Jones, her 1619 Project and the true history that surrounds it because they know their movement has no future unless they can leverage their present moment of political power to control our past. If we truly believe in free speech and in the power of knowledge and truth, we must fight them every step of the way.
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