Wednesday, July 21, 2021

No. 430: Academic Freedom, Tenure, and Nikole Hannah-Jones

The Howard Press Release
On July 5, 2021, Howard University (Washington, DC) issued a press release announcing that Nikole Hannah-Jones, a prominent Black journalist at The New York Times, is joining the Howard faculty. She will be a tenured professor in Howard's Cathy Hughes School of Communications. Hannah-Jones will occupy the newly created Knight Chair in Race and Journalism. In 2020, Hannah-Jones received a Pulitzer Prize for her work in establishing The 1619 Project.

The LDF Press Release
The events that preceded the Hannah-Jones move to Howard provide a powerful lesson in the importance of academic freedom. On July 6, the Leadership Defense Fund (LDF) of The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People issued a press release entitled:
Nikole Hannah-Jones Issues Statement on Decision to Decline Tenure Offer at University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and to Accept Knight Chair Appointment at Howard University
The LDF web site provided in full a lengthy explanatory statement by Hannah-Jones. That caught the attention of Dan Rather, a well-known former television reporter who is highly regarded by many people (including me). He is now retired and publishes an email newsletter called Steady. On July 9, Dan Rather, Elliot Kirschner, and the Steady team published a piece entitled "In Defense of Freedom—of the Press and the Academy," and published in it the entire Hannah-Jones statement as it appeared on the LDF web site. I strongly recommend you read it in full.

A Personal Experience
The Hannah-Jones story reminded me of a personal experience relating to academic freedom. I joined the Indiana University (IU) faculty in 1962. My research was controversial in life insurance circles, and it generated complaints to IU from prominent alumni in the life insurance business. IU provided me with complete academic freedom, even in the years before I was granted tenure.

IU strongly protects the academic freedom of its faculty. A vivid example was the furor over Professor Alfred Kinsey's research on human sexual behavior. When I mentioned to a colleague my concerns over the complaints against me, he said: "Joe, you don't understand. Indiana University is where Alfred Kinsey did his research."

In my 2015 book entitled The Insurance Forum: A Memoir, I described an incident that occurred in 1965. Here is what I said in the book:
A friend on the faculty at a university in a state other than Indiana invited me to visit his school and present a guest lecture. He said his school might offer me a faculty position. He told me his school would cover my travel expenses. I made the visit, presented the lecture, and met some people there.
Shortly after my return to Bloomington, I received a telephone call from my friend informing me the expense check was in the mail. He said he had bad news he felt obligated to share. He said he was embarrassed to inform me there would be no offer of a position. He explained that the chief executive officer of a major insurance company in the school's state had learned of my visit and had told school officials there would be no further contributions by the company to the school if I was appointed to the faculty. My friend said his school decided it could not afford to antagonize a major donor.
My immediate thought was that a financial threat by a donor to influence a faculty hiring decision is not tolerated by a great university, and I was grateful to have avoided a disastrous career move. All I said to my friend was that I understood, and I thanked him for the explanation. That was the first and last time I considered leaving Indiana University.