Monday, July 12, 2021
“Oh what a feeling! Dancing on the (glass) ceiling!”
Tuesday the saga of Nikole Hannah-Jones tenure process at the University of North Carolina came to an end with a statement she wrote declining the offer of tenure.
Like any excellent Professor, she neither got mad or got even but rather wrote.
Every university and college administrator, faculty or staff person in this country should read her statement. In fact, it is something that should be read by every American for it gives us a look into the violence of the glass ceiling.
No it is not guns, knives, ax handles, or bats violence. It is killshot e-mail attempts, sudden manipulation of agendas, public or closed sessions, weird silences on what is going on, and at the end the process creators who put in place this macabre charade characterizing themselves as the victims! It is a story in donor pressure on a university to subvert academic freedom because they do not like the particular scholarship of the person acclaimed by the academic community that wished to welcome them to their midst.
It is the fun of the little machinations done to sabotage her candidacy, the creation of an alternative to the normal process just for her, and the desperate effort to play what I have long called the X + 1 game.
The X + 1 game is that the candidate presents all their materials - we will call them X. These materials represent the normal extraordinary package of evidence of the worth of the candidate for the position. It provides an extensive yet all too brief view into the remarkable nature of the candidate.
But someone does not like the candidate and so begins the process of calling for the “+1”. The plus one is something that is not in the materials presented by the candidate which all of sudden becomes the crucial thing for their appointment or hiring for the position.
This is true in academia of course but this game is played all over the society.
The “plus one” is the knife stuck in the candidacy of the person who wishes to be considered on their merits. The perversion of the process of selection is then the twisting of the knife.
The “plus one” is engineered to put the candidate on the defensive. They are made to doubt themselves for not having done enough to truly merit the position. When denied, they think about doing that one more paper, or getting that one more certificate or experience so that they could succeed the next time. Or they are convinced that accepting less than what they were seeking is the best they can expect due to the now colossal inadequacy revealed that they lack the -heavens!- “plus one.”
Whether for a first job or all the way up to the top positions in any industry, I dare say this X + 1 game is endemic to our systems.
And playing this game must be something that at least some of the deciders relish. As a head of a major multinational corporation said to me when I asked him if he had fun at his job, “because of the terrible things I have to do, I have to have fun.”
But let us be clear that what is wonderful about Ms. Hannah-Jones statement is that it lays out in great detail the violence of the gatekeepers as they reinforce the glass ceiling to keep someone with merit but seen as undesirable from getting the brass ring.
I have seen this game happen to so many people over my career that I took the liberty of highlighting this perversion to the graduating students that I spoke to at my last commencement this Spring. I felt it my duty to warn them of this perversion that they might experience at some point or might have already experienced and not realized how they had been played by someone.
And, in fact, this game is so old that the late President Benjamin E. Mays talked about it in his chapel lectures to the students at Morehouse. He would say that when the President of the United States is looking for someone in your field, let it not be for your lack of preparation or your lack of integrity or your lack of diligence or some other lack that the President does not select you. Let it be for some other reason than your excellence in your field that the President does not select you. The “some other reason” of course in segregation was forced to be narrowed by the excellence to finally one thing (the plus one) that we can not have a black person in that role no matter how excellent, no matter their merits. It would be just too much to allow that one through the glass ceiling. We need to make sure they stay in their place. We do not need anyone daring to have the temerity to think they merit the position be allowed to get it for that would enshrine uppitiness which must be quashed by any means necessary.
The statement does the civic duty of bringing into the present the violence to which the candidate is being subjected. At the same time, Ms. Hannah-Jones documents the amount of countervailing forces that came to support her either from spontaneous shock and dismay at the shabbiness of the treatment she was receiving or as a skillfully deployed counter force to the X + 1 gamers who prefer to do their dirty deeds in the dark. It is quite a remarkable list and one thinks about all the poor saps out there who are not able to deploy such forces and find when they go to court that the rules are rigged against them getting relief for the violence they are experiencing.
So her statement brings light to the violence that is inherent in that anodyne term “glass ceiling.” The violence of those who impose such glass ceilings on those who they consider undesirables.
Yet, what is truly amazing in the statement is that in her own way, Ms. Hannah-Jones found a way to dance on the violence of the glass ceiling rather than succumb to its oppression. She has called out the game and after beating her detractors, listens to her own voice to take her in another way with a tinge of regret as well
as a sense of coherence with who she is.
And that is really something quite beautiful. Like a rose in Spanish Harlem that reaches up through the concrete of oppression to bask in the warm glow of the sunlight of all our respect.
- Benjamin G. Davis, Emeritus Professor of Law, University of Toledo College of Law