‘1619 Project’ creator Hannah-Jones weighs discrimination suit over tenure denial
Nikole Hannah-Jones, the Pulitzer Prize-winning creator of the 1619 Project, alerted the University of North Carolina (UNC) this week that she may soon file a discrimination lawsuit over its decision to deny her tenure.
Attorneys for Hannah-Jones, which includes lawyers with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund (LDF), sent the school a letter Thursday with a record-retention notice in preparation for possible litigation.
“UNC has unlawfully discriminated against Ms. Hannah-Jones based on the content of her journalism and scholarship and because of her race,” LDF attorneys said in a statement. “We will fight to ensure that her rights are vindicated.”
The dispute between Hannah-Jones and UNC arose this month after the school’s Board of Trustees appeared to downgrade a job offer to her amid outside pressure from conservatives. The board declined to offer tenure which had been extended to prior candidates for the same position.
Instead, Hannah-Jones received a five-year contract, with an option for tenure review, though her lawyers argued that Hannah-Jones’s credentials exceeded those of past recipients of tenure, which effectively amounts to a career-long appointment.
Critics accuse the board of buckling to outside pressure from opponents of the 1619 Project, a multimedia examination of U.S. history and race relations that Hannah-Jones spearheaded in 2019 for The New York Times Magazine. The project described its aim as seeking 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 earned a master’s degree from UNC’s journalism school in 2003, said in a statement she “had no desire to bring turmoil or a political firestorm to the university that I love.”
“But I am obligated to fight back against a wave of anti-democratic suppression that seeks to prohibit the free exchange of ideas, silence Black voices and chill free speech,” she said.
Joel Curran, a spokesman for UNC-Chapel Hill, confirmed that the university had received the record-retention request from Hannah-Jones’s lawyers but declined to comment further.
That letter was first reported by the Raleigh News & Observer.
Multiple requests for comments from members of the Board of Trustees were not returned to The Hill.
The April announcement that Hannah-Jones would be joining UNC was cheered by some members of the school community. Susan King, the dean of the UNC’s Hussman School of Media and Journalism, touted the New York Times Magazine reporter as “one of the most respected investigative journalists in America.”
In addition to receiving the Pulitzer Prize for the 1619 Project, Hannah-Jones is also a recipient of the MacArthur Fellowship “Genius Grant” and has written for ProPublica and several other outlets across her career.
At the same time, Hannah-Jones has become a lightning rod for conservatives, and her hiring by UNC drew fierce backlash.
Jay Schalin, the director of policy analysis at the conservative James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal, argued in a blog post on the group’s website that “UNC’s hiring Hannah-Jones signals a degradation of journalistic standards.”
“The real goal of The 1619 Project was not historical or journalistic, but political agitation,” Schalin wrote. “And an angry, underhanded politics at that; Hannah-Jones admitted that her underlying intent is to get ‘white people to give up whiteness.’ That is, to make them regard their identities as something abhorrent.”
The Center for Academic Renewal is linked to mega-donor Art Pope, who has given generously to UNC-Chapel Hill.
Alberto Ibargüen, president of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, in a statement last week encouraged the board to reconsider its decision before the expiration of Hannah-Jones’s five-year contract. Since 1984, the foundation has supported UNC’s Knight Chair in Journalism, the position Hannah-Jones will begin this summer.
“It is not our place to tell UNC or UNC/Hussman whom they should appoint or give tenure to,” Ibargüen said. “It is, however, clear to us that Hannah-Jones is eminently qualified for the appointment and we would urge the trustees of the University of North Carolina to reconsider their decision within the timeframe of our agreement.”
According to Hannah-Jones’s attorneys at LDF, the Board of Trustees’ failure to consider and approve her tenure application despite support from the UNC faculty, dean, provost and chancellor points to discrimination.
“All previous UNC Knight Chairs have received tenure in conjunction with their appointments, and Ms. Hannah-Jones’s credentials not only match but exceed those of prior UNC Knight Chairs,” LDF said.
Michael Ellement, an employment law attorney who has litigated tenure denial cases, said courts are generally wary of second-guessing such decisions and often defer to school officials’ judgment on who is best suited to receive tenure. But he said Hannah-Jones has a better chance of clearing this high legal bar if she can show she was equally or even more qualified than previous tenure recipients.
“Tenure litigation often involves the use of comparators – or other teachers granted or denied tenure in past years,” said Ellement, of the law firm James & Hoffman. “If, for example, a person with lesser or similar credentials was granted tenure recently, whereas Hannah-Jones was denied tenure, that would be potential evidence of discrimination.”
Rima Kapitan, a Chicago-based attorney who has litigated appeals of tenure denials, said the public should look skeptically upon efforts by higher education “to insert criteria other than academic qualifications into the tenure process.”
“If her allegations are true, the rejection of her tenure bid is part of a broad backlash against faculty who are a perceived threat to the status quo, whether because of their controversial research, political opinions or because of their attempts to reform academic institutions,” Kapitan said.
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