Prominent journalists, athletes and academics denounce UNC decision to deny Hannah-Jones tenure

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Nicole Hannah-Jones attends 2019 ROOT 100 Gala at The Angel Orensanz Foundation on November 21, 2019 in New York City.

More than 200 prominent journalists, athletes and academics signed a letter on Tuesday denouncing the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill’s decision to deny New York Times Magazine journalist and The 1619 Project lead author Nikole Hannah-Jones tenure.

The letter, published by The Root, called Hannah-Jones’s tenure denial “egregious,” and said the Board of Trustees’ decision was “almost certainly tied” to her involvement in the 1619 Project, which examines the role slavery played in the United States’ founding.

The university earlier this month denied Hannah-Jones tenure, despite the fact that her new role as Knight chair in race and investigative journalism is typically a tenured position.

The decision came after complaints from conservative groups regarding her hire, specifically because of her role in The 1619 Project, which has been criticized by those on the right as being skewed and inaccurate. Some states have tried to ban it from classrooms.

The trustee who heads the subcommittee that oversees tenure applications, Charles Duckett, has since said Hannah-Jones’s tenure application was terminated because she did not come from a “traditional academic-type background.”

The signatories of the letter, including New York Times writer Roxane Gay, NBA star Carmelo Anthony and academic Cornel West, wrote that “Few single works have been threatened with more restrictions than the 1619 Project.”

The letter also argued that Hannah-Jones’s denied tenure is “not an isolated incident.” It wrote that the “same anti-democratic thinking” that prevented the journalist’s appointment has “fueled efforts in state and local legislatures to ban the teaching of histories of slavery and its legacies through The 1619 Project.”

The group specifically highlighted proposed bills in state legislatures that would pose a threat to “opportunities for thousands of students across the nation to think more deeply about the year 1619 and the defining role of slavery in U.S. history.”

They included legislation being considered in South Dakota which would “act to prohibit the use of curricular materials that promote racial divisiveness,” and a bill in Arkansas that would prohibit the use of funds to teach The 1619 Project.

“We call on all people of conscience to decry this growing wave of repression and to encourage a recommitment to the free exchange of ideas in our schools, workplaces, legislatures, and communities,” the letter reads.

“We, the undersigned, believe this country stands at a crucial moment that will define the democratic expression and exchange of ideas for our own and future generations,” the letter added.

The signatories are now pledging to take action, which includes calling university administrators, public school officials and faculty unions and senates to issue statements supporting freedom of ideas in the classroom, and calling on philanthropic foundations to “look twice at state institutions that betray that freedom.”

Additionally, the letter wrote that the artists, performers and speakers who signed on to the note “may decline invitations from institutions that suppress free thought about racism and its historical roots.”

The signatories also vowed to “take our views with us to the ballot box and hold local, state and national politicians accountable to the free exchange of ideas and academic freedom.”

They said they will cheer on Hannah-Jones when she begins her time at UNC in the fall, but “will not turn away from the regrettable circumstances under which she will do so.”

“The University’s Board of Trustees has failed to uphold the first order values of academic freedom and the free exchange of ideas. And too many lawmakers have wrongly deemed it their role to reach into classrooms and tell educators what to teach and how to teach it,” the letter added.

The Hill reached out to Hannah-Jones and UNC for comment.

Monday’s letter is just the latest in the criticism and outrage following Hannah-Jones’s denied tenure. Fellow journalists ran to their colleague’s side following UNC’s decision, including MSNBC host Joy Reid and PBS White House reporter and “Washington Week” moderator Yamiche Alcindor.

Additionally, The Society of Professional Journalists has called on UNC to offer Hannah-Jones tenure.

–Updated at 2:21 p.m.

Tags Nikole Hannah-Jones Tenure The 1619 Project University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
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