Nikole Hannah-Jones Not Joining UNC Faculty

portrait of Mark J. Drozdowski, Ed.D.
by Mark J. Drozdowski, Ed.D.

Published on July 7, 2021 · Updated on May 6, 2022

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Nikole Hannah-Jones Not Joining UNC Faculty

It turns out Nikole Hannah-Jones won't be joining the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill faculty after all.

Instead, she has accepted a tenured position at Howard University, where she'll fill the school's newly created Knight Chair in Race and Journalism. Hannah-Jones announced her decision today on "CBS This Morning."

"It's pretty clear that my tenure was not taken up because of political opposition, because of discriminatory views against my viewpoints, and I believe my race and my gender," Hannah-Jones said on the show. "My peers in academia said that I was deserving of tenure. These board members are political appointees who decided that I wasn't."

Issues of Race and Academic Freedom Take Center Stage

Her announcement comes less than a week after a special meeting of the UNC Board of Trustees, which deliberated on June 30 for three hours before holding a public vote. By a tally of 9-4, Hannah-Jones was granted tenure.

Seldom does a tenure vote attract so much attention on a campus, let alone across the nation. Yet issues of racial justice and academic freedom, along with a highly publicized New York Times initiative, elevated this case to front-page news and incited campus demonstrations and protests at UNC.

Much of the controversy stemmed from Hannah-Jones' work on the "1619 Project," a New York Times Magazine effort 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. It earned her the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for commentary.

Conservative board members and UNC benefactor Walter Hussman Jr., for whom UNC's School of Journalism and Media is named, opposed her bid to receive tenure as the Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism. The board opted to postpone its decision, despite overwhelming support for Hannah-Jones from UNC faculty and the university chancellor.

Conservative board members and benefactors at UNC opposed Hannah-Jones' tenure bid, while faculty groups and student leaders rallied to her defense.

Following that decision, faculty groups around the country rallied to her defense, calling her case an egregious breach of academic freedom. Op-eds decried the outcome. 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.

Last week, amid a sea of demonstrators, UNC's board reconsidered its stance and awarded her tenure.

Too little, perhaps, and certainly too late.

Hannah-Jones' New Position at Howard University

So now Hannah-Jones will instead take up residence at Howard University's Cathy Hughes School of Communications — coincidentally in another Knight journalism chair. She also plans to create the Center for Journalism and Democracy, which will "focus on training and supporting aspiring journalists in acquiring the investigative skills and historical and analytical expertise needed to cover the crisis our democracy is facing."

According to a Howard news release, the center "hopes to work across multiple historically Black colleges and universities … that offer journalism degrees and concentrations."

"We are at a critical juncture in our democracy, and yet our press does not reflect the nation it serves and too often struggles to grasp the danger for our country as we see growing attacks on free speech and the fundamental right to vote," Hannah-Jones said. "In the storied tradition of the Black press, the Center for Journalism and Democracy will help produce journalists capable of accurately and urgently covering the challenges of our democracy with a clarity, skepticism, rigor, and historical dexterity that is too often missing from today's journalism."

What's Next for UNC?

Where does this leave UNC? Publicly spurned in the short term, with long-term implications that may be far more dire. Some faculty may leave, while other scholars and administrators are choosing not to take appointments there.

"It can't just be faculty of color falling on the sword and leaving to protect their own mental health, or leaving to send a message, or not coming," said Erika K. Wilson, a UNC professor of law and public policy. "I'm waiting for white faculty to say, 'This isn't the place for me.'"

Feature Image: Marcus Ingram / Contributor / Getty Images Entertainment

After initially declining to grant tenure to Nikole Hannah-Jones in May, the UNC board of trustees voted to grant tenure to the award-winning journalist on June 30. Nikole Hannah-Jones, a Black journalist who spearheaded the "1619 Project, has had her tenure bid postponed at UNC-Chapel Hill amid conservative criticism. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill enrolls over 29,000 students annually. The first public university in the country, UNC-Chapel Hill has an acceptance rate of 23% and a... is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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