“1619 Project” Founder Battles for Tenure at UNC-Chapel Hill

“1619 Project” Founder Battles for Tenure at UNC-Chapel Hill
portrait of Mark J. Drozdowski, Ed.D.
By Mark J. Drozdowski, Ed.D.

Published on June 4, 2021

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By most measures, Nikole Hannah-Jones is eminently qualified for a journalism faculty position at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

A Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist, she's covered civil rights and racial injustice for The New York Times since 2015. She also won a MacArthur Foundation "genius" grant and was named to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Hannah-Jones doesn't hold a doctorate — not all journalism faculty do — but she is a graduate of the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media.

In April, her alma mater appointed her as the Knight Chair in race and investigative journalism, a position that normally includes tenure. As such, Hannah-Jones completed UNC-Chapel Hill's rigorous tenure process, garnering enthusiastic support from faculty, the tenure committee, the Hussman School dean, and the UNC chancellor.

Despite garnering enthusiastic support from faculty and the tenure committee, conservative circles quickly questioned Hannah-Jones’ hiring.

But conservative circles quickly questioned Hannah-Jones' hiring. "This lady is an activist reporter — not a teacher," reads an unsigned editorial from the right-wing organization Carolina Partnership for Reform.

When Hannah-Jones' case came before the university's Board of Trustees, the group opted to postpone its decision, effectively denying her tenure — at least for now. Instead, Hannah-Jones will serve a five-year fixed term as professor of the practice, after which the board may reconsider her tenure bid.

Although the board has the final say regarding tenure decisions, its normal practice is to accept faculty and administrative recommendations.

A member of the board, who chose to remain anonymous, summed up the board's motivation to NC Policy Watch in one word: "Politics."

"1619 Project" Spurs Heated Debate

Conservatives' complaints appear to revolve around Hannah-Jones' work on the "1619 Project," a New York Times Magazine initiative that "aims to reframe [U.S.] history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of Black Americans at the very center of our national narrative."

Critics claim the 1619 Project promotes a false narrative about the country’s origins.

Hannah-Jones, who is Black, conceived of this project herself — and it earned her the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for commentary.

Critics claim the project promotes a false narrative about the country's origins and is generally unpatriotic. Others question its accuracy. The Carolina Partnership for Reform called the 1619 Project an "academic travesty when you consider its flawed conjectures."

Meanwhile, emails have surfaced detailing UNC benefactor Walter Hussman Jr.'s efforts to block Hannah-Jones' appointment.

"I worry about the controversy of tying the UNC journalism school to the 1619 Project," wrote Hussman, namesake of the School of Journalism and Media. "I find myself more in agreement with Pulitzer Prize-winning historians like James McPherson and Gordon Wood than I do Nikole Hannah-Jones."

A Community Rallies in Support

Hussman School faculty were "stunned" by the UNC-Chapel Hill board's decision to defer a vote on Hannah-Jones' tenure.

"The national politicization of universities, journalism, and the social sciences," they wrote, "undermines the integrity of and academic freedom within the whole University of North Carolina system."

“Hannah-Jones’ distinguished record of more than 20 years in journalism surpasses expectations for a tenured position as the Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism.”
UNC Hussman Faculty, May 19, 2021

Eric Muller, a member of the university's Faculty Council, said, "I'm not sure any of us has seen the faculty more galvanized with emotion. I see no reason to hide the fact that we are outraged."

Public pressure in support of Hannah-Jones continues to mount. UNC-Chapel Hill alumni have united in her defense, raising more than $20,000 in less than 24 hours through a GoFundMe account to purchase an ad in the local newspaper calling for the Board of Trustees to take proper action.

Hannah-Jones Responds to Controversy

In a statement to the media, Hannah-Jones noted the "wave of antidemocratic suppression that seeks to prohibit the free exchange of ideas, silence Black voices, and chill free speech" as reasons influencing her decision to "fight back."

"As a Black woman who has built a nearly two-decades-long career in journalism," she wrote, "I believe Americans who research, study, and publish works that expose uncomfortable truths about the past and present manifestations of racism in our society should be able to follow these pursuits without risk to their civil and constitutional rights."

Lawyers representing Hannah-Jones have initiated a case against the UNC-Chapel Hill board, requesting documentation related to her tenure bid.

The board may reconsider Hannah-Jones' case by the end of the month, but a formal denial of tenure would almost certainly result in even greater public outrage.

Feature Image: Marcus Ingram / Contributor / Getty Images Entertainment

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