Story at a glance
- Nikole Hannah-Jones, a graduate of the University of North Carolina, won the Pulitzer Prize for Commentary for her work on “The 1619 Project.”
- She was hired by UNC as the Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism in April, reportedly a tenured position.
- After criticism from conservatives, the Board of Trustees did not grant Hannah-Jones tenure as it had for previous hires in the position.
The University of North Carolina (UNC) broke precedent and denied tenure to recent hire Nikole Hannah-Jones, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship “Genius Grant,” after criticism from conservative groups with ties to the Board of Governors.
“I’ve heard people say that she shouldn’t work here, that they disagree with her beliefs, that they disagree with what she has to say,” Lamar Richards, UNC-Chapel Hill student body president and incoming student representative on the Board of Trustees, told NC Policy Watch, which broke the story. “But I believe, and the chancellor I believe has said and supports this publicly, that our university is a place for the free flow of ideas, for different ideologies, for people who everyone might not agree with and whose work might not please everyone.”
In April, the university announced Hannah-Jones would join her alma mater as the Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism, calling her “one of the country’s leading voices in journalism” and “at the top of her field.”
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“The school has such an important role to play in fostering democracy, and her appointment shows our commitment to that goal,” said Ford Worthy, president of the school’s foundation board, in a release announcing her hiring. “The board is particularly interested in the long-term strength of the school in terms of faculty diversity. A MacArthur Genius with a Pulitzer Prize who will share her perspective and skills with our students is exactly the kind of journalistic leader we believe will build the school for tomorrow.”
Despite the university’s stated commitment to long-term diversity, the board of trustees chose not to grant Hannah-Jones tenure, which previous appointees to the position were granted. An unnamed Board of Trustees member told NC Policy Watch the decision was a “work-around” all due to “politics.”
“The 1619 Project,” which included an introductory essay by Hannh-Jones that was awarded the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for Commentary, centers the history of slavery and Black Americans in telling the story of the United States and has been criticized by white historians, among others, for deviating from the existing white-centered narrative.
“The details of individual faculty hiring processes are personnel protected information. The university is proud to host a Knight Chair at our leading Hussman School of Journalism and Media and looks forward to welcoming Nikole Hannah-Jones to campus,” said a university spokesperson.
The reversal received immediate pushback, including from the university’s own faculty, who demanded an explanation as well as tenure for Hannah-Jones. In an open letter, faculty called the decision “a concerning departure from UNC’s traditional process” and “especially disheartening,” because it occurred despite their support.
“It’s disappointing, it’s not what we wanted and I am afraid it will have a chilling effect,” Susan King, dean of UNC Hussman, told NC Policy Watch.
it’s hard to see UNC’s decision to deny tenure to Nikole Hannah Jones as anything other than an attack on press freedom — she is being penalized for producing journalism that powerful people do not like and have worked for years to silence.
— Wesley (@WesleyLowery) May 19, 2021
The UNC decision to deny tenure to Nikole Hannah Jones is obscene. Tenure exists precisely to protect faculty from this kind of politicized decision-making. We need to compare the credentials of people who *did*get tenure this year if a Pulitzer & MacArthur winner did not.
— jelani cobb (@jelani9) May 19, 2021
The Board of Trustees includes eight members elected by the UNC Board of Governors and four appointed by the NC General Assembly, six of whom are in the final year of their term. Only one of the 13 members, which also includes the president of the student government, is Black and one of two women on the board.
“The Board of Governors has decided not to reappoint certain trustees they felt were not on the right ideological page,” an unnamed trustee told NC Policy Watch, “and have even engineered the ouster of chancellors with whom they disagreed.”
On Twitter, Hannah-Jones said she was trying to stay off social media, but added “just know I see you all and I am grateful.”
I’ve been staying off of here today, but just know I see you all and I am grateful.
— Ida Bae Wells (@nhannahjones) May 20, 2021
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