Nikole Hannah-Jones and the Secret History of the Real ‘Cancel Culture’ on U.S. CampusesBreaking News
tags: conservatism, University of North Carolina, academic freedom
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.
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.
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