Leadership Changes at UNC-Chapel Hill in Wake of Hannah-Jones Settlement

Hannah-Jones settlement encourages greater inclusion at the university, while new leadership at UNC-Chapel Hill sparks conversations about freedom of speech.
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  • New leaders have joined the graduate and journalism schools at UNC-Chapel Hill, as the terms of Nikole Hannah-Jones' settlement have been released.
  • The Hannah-Jones settlement requires an inclusive search process, among other provisions.
  • The new university leaders meet about academic freedom on campus.

In the wake of journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones' settlement with the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC-Chapel Hill), campus leaders say they are focused on protecting and promoting free speech and maintaining institutional neutrality on "social and political issues."

A Case for Hannah-Jones' Tenure

Just over a year ago, Hannah-Jones, a Pulitzer Prize recipient and alum of UNC-Chapel-Hill's Hussman School of Journalism and Media, was offered a highly anticipated position from the university.

In April 2021, Hannah-Jones was named the Knight chair in race and investigative journalism — a position that had historically received academic tenure since the 1980s. She was also recommended for tenure by a supportive group of Hussman School faculty members and Susan King, dean of the school's board of trustees.

After completing the tenure application process, Hannah-Jones awaited an answer from the board.

Hannah-Jones' tenure approval was debated and ultimately denied. Instead, she was offered a five-year contract with the possibility of tenure review.

Hannah-Jones, along with many other critics of the decision, believe that she was denied tenure because of her contributions two years prior to "The 1619 Project," which aimed "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."

Some university leaders — including the journalism school's namesake donor — questioned her objectivity in the report, and whether it aligned with the Hussman School's guidelines, according to The Assembly.

After much debate and community uprising, the board reversed its decision, and Hannah-Jones was eventually granted tenure.

She denied it, and instead accepted a position as the Knight chair in race and reporting at Howard University, sparking a national conversation about diversification and academic freedom in higher education.

Earlier this year, UNC-Chapel Hill's Hussman School was demoted to "provisional status" following a vote from the Accrediting Council on Education in Journalism and Mass Communications.

According to the council's report, "It is not an overstatement to say the University and the school face major challenges that could be seen as a microcosm of some of the issues facing higher education. These include the influence of donors, the overt intrusion of politics into public universities, and, of course, issues around diversity and inclusion."

Hannah-Jones Sought Change, Concessions in Lawsuit

Hannah-Jones had filed a discrimination lawsuit over the initial decision denying her tenure. On July 16, Hannah-Jones, with the support of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, finally reached an agreement with the university.

According to The Daily Tarheel, UNC-Chapel Hill will pay $74,999.99 to resolve the legal matter from last year, only a penny off from requiring chancellor approval.

The agreement prohibits Hannah-Jones from applying for employment at the university before Jan. 1, 2028.

According to a press release from the Legal Defense Fund, there are three main concessions included in the settlement.

The first is integrating an inclusive search process, which requires the university to train 20 faculty members as paid "search and selection process advisers" to aid in the recruitment and training process of new faculty with the ultimate goal of eliminating bias.

The settlement also requires that the university post a position for "an additional trauma-informed therapist with the Multicultural Health Program" no later than July 31 and hires a qualified faculty member for that position.

Finally, each fiscal year through June 30, 2025, the UNC-Chapel Hill must reserve $5,000 to pay expenses for "meetings, events, and symposia sponsored by the Carolina Black Caucus."

These factors, according to Hannah-Jones' Twitter feed on July 19, were much more important than the dollar amount she received personally from the settlement.

She says, "The University of North Carolina has confirmed the dollar amount of my settlement over my tenure in media reports, but my settlement was about much more than that. I and my @NAACP_LDF team fought for concessions that wld support the work of faculty & students of color on campus."

She continues later in the thread: "We took these concessions directly from the asks of student and faculty groups and fought very hard for them. We believe that these concessions will help make my alma mater better and help it live up to its promise. As I said again and again: this was never about me."

Janai S. Nelson, president of the Legal Defense Fund, added, "We believe that the settlement is a victory for the right to free expression — a cornerstone of our democracy that has too frequently been infringed or ignored when claimed by Black people and people from other marginalized groups."

New Leadership Addresses Academic Freedom

In other news from Chapel Hill, changes have recently been made to the school's leadership.

Over the past month, the board of trustees at UNC-Chapel Hill welcomed a group of new leaders to take on the graduate and journalism schools for the fall semester.

Among the new appointees are: Dr. Beth Mayer-Davis, dean of the graduate school; Dr. Nancy Messonnier, dean of the Gillings School of Global Public Health; and Stanley Ahalt, inaugural dean of the School of Data Science and Society. Raul Reis, who is leading the Hussman School of Journalism and Media, started his role as dean on July 1.

The board concurrently set their leadership into place, electing Kamrhan Farwell as vice chancellor for communication and reelecting Dave Boliek, Malcolm Turner, John Preyer, and Chris McClure to their respective positions.

With new leadership comes renewed conversations about freedom of speech on UNC-Chapel Hill's campus.

Freedom of expression in higher education has been a point of contention over the past 18 months across the U.S.

According to PEN America Index of Educational Gag Orders, nearly 70 state-specific bills have been proposed in the last year and a half to ban topics of speech in higher education — ranging from critical race theory to sex stereotyping.

On the heels of the Hannah-Jones case and settlement, the University Affairs and Strategic Initiatives committee met with the board to share the findings of faculty-led research about freedom of expression on University of North Carolina system campuses.

The data from the study suggests:

  • Faculty generally do not push political agendas.
  • Campuses do not consistently achieve an atmosphere that promotes free expression.
  • Students who identify as conservative face distinct challenges.
  • Students across the political spectrum want more opportunities to engage with those who think differently.

Additionally, the data found that students in the UNC system are most uncomfortable discussing topics such as race, police, guns, and immigration.

During the meeting, the board passed a resolution confirming that the university is "dedicated to the transmission and advancement of knowledge and understanding” and "that academic freedom is essential to the achievement of these purposes."

The resolution continues, "the neutrality of the University on social and political issues arises out of respect for free inquiry and the obligation to cherish a diversity of viewpoints."

This even extends into the university's tenure policy, which states that "it is the policy of the University to maintain and encourage full freedom, within the law, of inquiry, discourse, teaching, research, and publication and to protect any member of the faculty against influences, from within or without the University, which would restrict the faculty member in the exercise of these freedoms in his or her area of scholarly interest."