Nikole Hannah-Jones Granted Tenure at UNC-Chapel Hill

Nikole Hannah-Jones Granted Tenure at UNC-Chapel Hill
portrait of Mark J. Drozdowski, Ed.D.
By Mark J. Drozdowski, Ed.D.

Published on June 30, 2021

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Following a fierce battle in the court of public opinion, Nikole Hannah-Jones has been awarded tenure at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.

The university's board of trustees held a special meeting today, the last day of the 2020-2021 fiscal year. Following a three-hour private meeting, the board voted publicly, 9-4, to grant tenure.

Their decision puts an end to this saga, but the ramifications on campus may be felt for some time.

Last April, UNC appointed Hannah-Jones as the Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism at its Hussman School of Journalism and Media. That position normally includes tenure. Hannah-Jones, an alumna of the school, completed the rigorous tenure process and received enthusiastic support from faculty, the tenure committee, the Hussman School dean and the UNC chancellor (head of the university).

Her case then came before the university's board of trustees in May. Although the board does have the final say regarding tenure decisions, its normal practice is to accept faculty and administrative recommendations. This time, however, the board opted to postpone its decision, effectively denying tenure for the time being. Instead, Hannah-Jones was slated to serve a five-year fixed term as Professor of the Practice, after which the board could reconsider her tenure bid.

Hannah-Jones, a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist and a MacArthur "genius" grant recipient, was scheduled to join the UNC faculty full time on July 1 but stated she would not take the position without tenure.

The Decision Sparks Nationwide Outrage

Hussman School faculty were "stunned" by the board's decision. 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."

They weren't alone. Faculty groups around the country rallied to her defense, calling her case an egregious breach of academic freedom. Op-eds decried the decision. Student leaders met with university officials to discuss their concerns. Chapel Hill alumni united in her cause, raising money through a GoFundMe account to purchase an ad in the local newspaper calling for the board of trustees to take proper action.

And lawyers initiated a case against UNC's board, requesting documentation related to Hannah-Jones' tenure bid and threatening to sue the university in federal court for racial discrimination.

The "1619 Project" Controversy

Much of the controversy involved Hannah-Jones' work on the "1619 Project," a New York Times Magazine initiative that "aims to reframe the country's history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of our national narrative." Hannah-Jones, who is black, conceived of this project, and it earned her the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for commentary.

Critics of the project claim it promotes a false narrative about the country's origins and is generally unpatriotic. Others question its accuracy. The conservative organization Carolina Partnership for Reform wrote, "This lady is an activist reporter – not a teacher," calling the 1619 Project an "academic travesty when you consider its flawed conjectures."

Conservative members of UNC's politically appointed board took issue with Hannah-Jones' hiring, as did UNC benefactor Walter Hussman Jr., for whom the school is named. Emails he sent to UNC leaders detailed his efforts to block Hannah-Jones' appointment.

"I worry about the controversy of tying the UNC journalism school to the 1619 project," he wrote. "I find myself more in agreement with Pulitzer prize winning historians like James McPherson and Gordon Wood than I do Nikole Hannah-Jones."

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 spurring her decision to "fight back."

Now that she's won her fight, she will join her alma mater as a tenured professor.

Feature Image: Marcus Ingram / Contributor / Getty Images Entertainment

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