ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Nikole Hannah-Jones has the strong support of journalism faculty at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, not to mention a Pulitzer Prize and a MacArthur genius grant. But the university's board of trustees has not yet voted to award her a tenured professorship. The board is under pressure from conservatives who object to her 1619 Project, which frames American history in the context of slavery. Now dozens of Black leaders from around the country have written a public letter in The Root supporting Nikole Hannah-Jones. They say UNC's action has implications for democracy and the open exchange of ideas. Martha Jones is a professor of history at Johns Hopkins University, who signed the letter.
MARTHA JONES: Thanks for having me.
SHAPIRO: Why is this about more than just one person?
JONES: My concern is with the chilling effect. Here, a distinguished journalist - step (ph) out of the newsroom, if you will, and into the classroom to teach young people - has been summarily denied the post that she had been vetted for at the university. How do we expect folks to, in our professional schools, come out of their day-to-day work and come to the university and teach young people when our system appears to be, in this instance, broken?
SHAPIRO: The letter refers to a rising tide of suppression and threat to academic freedom. Nikole Hannah-Jones was offered a five-year renewable contract. How is that a threat to academic freedom?
JONES: The system of tenure is expressly intended to insulate faculty from the vagaries of politics in a way that no other structure can. A five-year renewable contract is always subject to review and non-renewal. And so here, tenure is that bedrock of academic freedom that ensures us that as we think new ideas, as we debate hard ideas, there will not be professional consequences for that.
SHAPIRO: There is obviously a political controversy about the work of Nikole Hannah-Jones specifically.
SHAPIRO: But I'd also like to ask you more broadly about the experience of Black people and Black women in academia. Can you talk about the hurdles that people of color, specifically women of color, have to clear to achieve tenure and other important positions? This is something you've experienced yourself.
JONES: For any academic, the experience of tenure review is rigorous and demanding. For Black women scholars, especially those of us who work on subject matters like the history of slavery, of race and racism, there is another bar. And it is the long indifference of the academy, the long indifference of our disciplines, so there is that subject matter skepticism that is layered on top of an already rigorous process.
SHAPIRO: Can you tell us any kind of specific experience you've had, a story from your own life that sort of reflects these ideas you're talking about?
JONES: Very early in my career, I had a summer experience where I was part of an interdisciplinary research group and found myself at lunch with a colleague who was also new to the university and worked on the planet Mars. He said to me that he thought African American history was fundamentally a history of grievances and a history of navel-gazing by Black Americans. And, well, I don't have to tell you that I disagreed. I understood that every time I stood up in a meeting in front of peers, before a university committee, I was burdened with justifying, explaining, legitimizing my field. I don't think my colleague who worked on Mars carried quite the same burden, and that gave me a kind of modest intelligence.
SHAPIRO: So you argue that political pressure and intervention by the board of trustees are the wrong way to make these kinds of decisions. But is the pressure of a public letter the right way to make these kinds of decisions? I mean, should things like this be hashed out through public debate?
JONES: I think that the purpose, in my view, of the letter is first and foremost public education. It is to provide an alternative point of view to that powerful one that is being expressed by the board of trustees and its failure to act on Nikole Hannah-Jones' appointment so that we have the opportunity to reframe that as more, simply, than the vilification of an individual but an act that fits into a regrettable matrix of challenges to how we teach history, who teaches it and what we teach.
SHAPIRO: Professor Martha Jones is a historian at Johns Hopkins University.
Thank you very much.
JONES: Thanks very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.