One on One: Changing times strain Carolina and Davidson

Published 7:22 am Monday, May 31, 2021

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Tenure at UNC-Chapel Hill and changing rules about the Davidson College president’s religion pulled both schools into the headlines in recent weeks.

These topics remind how hard it is for some of us to accept changes to long-held ideas about our history and our strong religious attachments.

In Chapel Hill, the news dealt with the successful recruitment of Nikole Hannah-Jones by the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media to serve in the prestigious position of Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism.

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Hannah-Jones, an alumna of the school, had gained national attention as a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and creator of The New York Times’ “1619 Project.”

Hannah-Jones was to serve in a prestigious tenured or permanent position that would assure she could not be fired without cause.

However, at UNC-CH, appointment to a tenured position requires action by the board of trustees, which has not given its approval.

Hussman Dean Susan King was undaunted by this setback and offered Hannah-Jones a five-year contract. She told NBC News, “While I am disappointed that the appointment is without tenure, there is no doubt in anyone’s mind that she will be a star faculty member.”

Why did the politically appointed trustees fail to act? It is, at least in large part, political. Hannah-Jones’ 1619 Project is controversial – big-time.

According to a Columbia School of Journalism statement, “Twenty-three Republican Senators and nineteen state Attorneys General have signed letters denouncing the 1619 Project.”


In its introduction to the Hannah-Jones report, the Times asserted that “the moment that the country’s defining contradictions first came into the world was in late August of 1619.

“That was when a ship arrived at Point Comfort in the British colony of Virginia, bearing a cargo of 20 to 30 enslaved Africans. Their arrival inaugurated a barbaric system of chattel slavery that would last for the next 250 years. This is sometimes referred to as the country’s original sin, but it is more than that: It is the country’s very origin.

“The goal of The 1619 Project is to reframe American history by considering what it would mean to regard 1619 as our nation’s birth year. Doing so requires us to place the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of the story we tell ourselves about who we are as a country.”

In the academic world of Chapel Hill, this radical new way of viewing our nation’s history may be welcome fodder for vigorous and stimulating discussion. But among others, it can appear to be an arrogant demand to abandon the treasured understandings of our nation’s history that help hold our diverse population together.

Changing key foundational planks of a college’s governing documents can also unleash controversy. Week before last at Davidson College, 11 former trustees objected to recent changes in the college’s bylaws, including the removal of a requirement that the college president be “a person who is a loyal and active church member, whose life provides evidence of strong Christian faith and commitment. Such faith and commitment will be appropriately expressed by affiliation with the Presbyterian Church (USA) and active participation in the life of Davidson College Presbyterian Church.”

Davidson has always valued its Presbyterian ties, but over time those connections have loosened as the college changed from a southern-based white men’s school into a widely admired national institution with a diverse student body and led by a woman president and a woman board chair.

Over the 70 years that I have been connected to the school, I worried about each change, each opening, just as I worry today about losing the requirement that the school be led by a Presbyterian. But notwithstanding my worries, each change strengthened the college and opened the door to wider service.

So, while I am a little worried about this recent change, too, I plan to keep my mouth shut and pray for the best.

D.G. Martin grew up in Davidson, where his father was college president, graduated there and has served as college trustee. He served as vice president of public affairs and chief lobbyist for the UNC System and lives in Chapel Hill.