Dr. Mimi Chapman is a professor at UNC’s School of Social Work. She joined the faculty in 2001 and was Chair of the Faculty from 2020 to 2023. She is a co-founder of the Coalition for Carolina.
As a frequent flyer, I’m well-versed in the virtues of various airlines. I’m an expert packer, ready to fly on a dime. Before the pandemic, I was on a plane twice a month or more, sometimes heading a few states over and sometimes to the other side of the world. Our family portfolio includes airline stock, so I keep up with the industry’s ups and downs.
But never, even if I flew my own plane, would I call the airlines and tell them how to hire, fire, recruit, promote, assign and evaluate their pilots.
Yet, that is exactly what is happening in public higher education. Now, Texas A&M has joined UNC in the academic hall of shame. Just like here two years ago, a Black female journalist was recruited, then given the bait-and-switch to a much less stable employment status.
In the summer of 2021, I was finishing the first year of a three-year term as Chair of the Faculty at UNC Chapel Hill. Pockets of post-pandemic normalcy were springing up: small indoor dinner parties, an occasional in-person meeting.
As someone who read The 1619 Project cover to cover when it first appeared in The New York Times Magazine, I was delighted to learn that Nikole Hannah-Jones would be joining our faculty.
In April, we heard that she would join us on a five-year, fixed-term contract. But in May, I learned that the situation was more complicated; she’d been approved by the faculty for tenure, but she couldn’t get a vote from our Board of Trustees, and therefore her offer had been changed from tenured to fixed-term.
Kathleen O. McElroy’s situation at Texas A&M is all too similar. A Black woman, a thought leader, a professor of journalism and media, writing in national publications about her views and scholarship, receives an offer inviting her to contribute to a program where she had come of age and launched her own career.
Student makes good, wants to give back to the place that gave them their start. An advancement officer’s dream. A feel-good story all around. Indeed, all of us get excited when thought leaders such as Hannah-Jones or Frank Bruni – who joined the university-that-shall-not-be-named down the road – join the academy.
I was more than a little starstruck thinking Hannah-Jones would be a colleague. Maybe we’d get to be friends? Gossip over drinks at the Carolina Inn? Would some stardust rub off?
But, behind the scenes, other actors were at work. Our trustees took the heat, but pressures came from interest groups, legislators and donors – all of whom believed they should have a say in how our campus does its work.
As I told our trustees at the time, the processes by which tenured or tenure-track faculty are hired are rigorous. They take hours of painstaking work. I calculated 170 hours for any one tenure decision, and that’s likely an undercount.
Reading of the trials of Professor McElroy, that difficult summer floods back: the hope, frustration and then disappointment. Students and faculty alike mobilized. The campus spoke with one voice. We moved the needle, and we were able to get Ms. Hannah-Jones the positive tenure vote she deserved. She chose not to accept it.
Seeing this again at Texas A&M fills me with sorrow. These women made plans. Resigned other positions. Prepared their homes for sale. Looked for new places to live. They were considering schools for children, saying good-bye to colleagues and friends in places they’d called home. They were excited about a new venture, a chance for a new kind of creativity in their work. Their partners or spouses were reorienting, supporting these smart, powerful women they love.
I wonder about people who demand that someone not be tenured or hired because their scholarship makes someone else uncomfortable. Do they stop to think of the human toll? Do they recognize that these women are not objects to grace the conference room table, but are accomplished people, with lives to manage and contributions to make?
Professor McElroy decided to return to her work at UT-Austin. She’s grateful, I’m sure, but perhaps also awkward. Do her colleagues at UT believe she no longer wants to be there? Will she feel at home again? What if UT hadn’t welcomed her back?
If the individuals who treated these women this way were treated the same way, I’ll bet that a river of grievance and head-rolling would roar down like a waterfall.
At UNC, the Hannah-Jones situation was not our first or last rodeo with outside political interference. They come fast and furious, sometimes bursting onto public view and always eroding campus morale.
We are hardly alone. Texas, Florida, Iowa, Ohio, Georgia, Tennessee: the list of public higher education institutions under fire becomes longer by the day. But these controversies are not just headlines. The costs to the individuals involved – and to all of us – are steep.
The United States has the greatest university system in the world, responsible for scientific, artistic and economic advancement across generations. We know how to fly the plane, thank you. If you’re unhappy, let’s talk about it. If you don’t like the airline, choose a different one.
But unless you want me to pick your pilots, let faculty and administrators hire professors.
Dr. Mimi Chapman
In alarming and related news, Joy Alonzo, an expert on the opioid epidemic and a professor in Texas A&M University’s Department of Pharmacy Practice, was recently placed on administrative leave and investigated simply for raising questions about the political interference in higher education.