Tenure denial for 1619 Project’s Nikole Hannah-Jones continues to roil UNC journalism program

By: - June 22, 2021 6:52 pm

Nikole Hannah-Jones. Credit: Alice Vergueiro/Abraji via Wikimedia Commons

Nikole Hannah-Jones, the journalist behind The New York Times’ “The 1619 Project,” will not join the faculty at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill without tenure, according to a letter from her legal team to the university this week.

According to the letter, Hannah-Jones will not begin her position as Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism on July 1, as scheduled, and will not take the position without tenure.

As Florida Phoenix partner NC Policy Watch has reported, the UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees declined to vote on tenure for Hannah-Jones when she was recruited for the position. She was then offered a five-year fixed-term contract — a striking departure from precedent. Previous Knight Chairs at UNC, who are by definition media professionals rather than career academics, have been hired with tenure.

Sources on the board said that trustees had political objections to Hannah-Jones’s work and faced pressure from conservatives to prevent her hire, with or without tenure. Among the influential voices warning against the hire was  Walter Hussman, the Arkansas media magnate whose $25 million donation to the journalism school  led to it being named for him.

Trustees described the five-year contract as a “work-around” negotiated to prevent the tenure vote from coming to the board, where university leaders expected a political fight over Hannah-Jones’s work, much of which deals with history and race in America.

Controversy over the board’s failure to hold a tenure vote led to widespread condemnation from students, faculty, alumni and some of the school’s largest donors and funding partners.

The faculty tenure committee re-submitted Hannah-Jones’s tenure application to the board with the support of the school’s provost and Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz. But despite  a looming federal discrimination lawsuit from Hannah-Jones, the board has taken no action.

Two members of the board of trustees spoke with Policy Watch Tuesday, requesting that their names be withheld so that they could discuss confidential personnel matters. Both said they have not heard anything about a vote of the full board on tenure. That frustrates members of the board who would like to see an up-or-down vote as pressure mounts from students, faculty, alumni, and funders.

The school has lost multiple high profile Black recruits, faculty, and staff members since the controversy began. Professors are also reporting they have spoken with Black students at the undergraduate and graduate level who have decided not to return to the university as a result of the university’s actions in the Hannah-Jones case.

“At the end of the month the tenure of some board members is up and some new ones are going to come onto the board,” one trustee said. “I think they just want to let that happen, so they don’t have to deal with it. But I think that strategy could cost the school a good new faculty member, it is costing us faculty members right now who are leaving over all of this, and it is damaging the reputation of the school.”

Another trustee said some on the board and in leadership at the UNC System level seemed to think “they could have their cake and eat it too” by having Hannah-Jones begin in July without tenure. They could then argue that she had already begun teaching at the school and so the controversy was overblown, the trustee said. While avoiding public discussion of the controversy and his part in it, UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz has repeatedly said he is glad Hannah-Jones will begin at the school July 1.

“But this letter makes it clear she’s not going to begin the job that way and give them what they want on that,” the trustee said. “They want her to take the job under different and lesser conditions than her white predecessors did, and I think continuing to push that is dangerous for the university’s reputation and it’s a bad legal strategy. If we don’t deal with this sooner rather than later, we are going to be fighting a legal fight over it while we have Black students and faculty leaving the university in large numbers, which we are already seeing. How do we think we are going to recruit top students and faculty under these conditions?”

This story was originally published by the NC Policy Watch, a partner of the nonprofit States Newsroom, which includes the Florida Phoenix.

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