Nikole Hannah-Jones ’03: No to UNC, Yes to Howard

After the UNC Board of Trustees’ vote on June 30 to grant tenure, Nikole Hannah-Jones ’03 (MA) issued a statement through her legal team thanking supporters. That statement had left open questions about her plans at the University. (Photo by Ray Black III)

Nikole Hannah-Jones ’03 (MA), whose extended tenure bid to become the University’s Knight Chair in race and investigative journalism at the Hussman School of Journalism and Media became a national controversy, will not be teaching at Carolina after all.

Instead, she announced in an exclusive interview Tuesday on CBS This Morning that she will hold the same Knight Chair title at Howard University.

“I love my alma mater,” Hannah-Jones told interviewer Gayle King. But, she added, “I didn’t ask for this.

“This is not my fight. I fought the battle I wanted to fight. Which is I deserve to be treated equally and have a vote on my tenure.”

In a lengthy statement released through her legal team, Hannah-Jones thanked Hussman Dean Susan King, faculty at Chapel Hill, colleagues across the country and student body President Lamar Richards and other student leaders who advocated for her tenure. She spoke with admiration of her time as a graduate student at UNC, the growth she experienced in its journalism school and her longtime desire to “pay it forward.”

But, she said: “It is not my job to heal this university, to force the reforms necessary to ensure the Board of Trustees reflects the actual population of the school and the state, or to ensure that the university leadership lives up to the promises it made to reckon with its legacy of racism and injustice.

“For too long, powerful people have expected the people they have mistreated and marginalized to sacrifice themselves to make things whole. The burden of working for racial justice is laid on the very people bearing the brunt of the injustice, and not the powerful people who maintain it. I say to you: I refuse.”

The news marked the latest tumultuous chapter on a campus that continues to be beset by controversy around the issues of academic freedom and race and reckoning.

On June 30, the UNC Board of Trustees voted 9-4 in a special session, a day before she had originally been set to start working for UNC, to include tenure with the University’s earlier offer to Hannah-Jones to join UNC’s faculty. That action followed by more than a month news that the trustees had not acted on Hannah-Jones’ application in January, igniting a firestorm of criticism that spread through Chapel Hill and in academic circles nationally. Faculty, staff, alumni and student groups had urged the trustees to put the prominent journalist’s dossier to a vote.

After the trustees’ vote, Hannah-Jones said through her legal team that she needed “to take some time to process all that has occurred and determine what is the best way forward.”

Her reflection led her to Howard, one of a number of universities that had extended offers to Hannah-Jones in recent weeks. Another prominent journalist and author, Ta-Nehisi Coates, also is joining Howard’s faculty; both announcements came on Tuesday. Coates is a National Book Award winner and, like Hannah-Jones, a past recipient of the MacArthur Fellowship “genius grant.”

“I have decided that instead of fighting to prove I belong at an institution that until 1955 prohibited Black Americans from attending, I am instead going to work in the legacy of a university not built by the enslaved but for those who once were,” Hannah-Jones said. “For too long, Black Americans have been taught that success is defined by gaining entry to and succeeding in historically white institutions. I have done that, and now I am honored and grateful to join the long legacy of Black Americans who have defined success by working to build up their own.

“I will be taking a position as the inaugural Knight Chair in Race and Reporting at Howard University, founded in 1867 to serve the formerly enslaved and their descendants. There, I will be creating a new initiative aimed at training aspiring journalists to cover the crisis of our democracy and bolstering journalism programs at historically Black colleges and universities across the country. I have already helped secure $15 million for this effort, called the Center for Journalism and Democracy, with the generous grants from the Ford, Knight, and MacArthur foundations, and have set a goal of raising $25 million.”

Hannah-Jones said in her CBS interview that she had shared her decision with Dean King, whom she called a “tremendous advocate” for her; with members of the Carolina Black Caucus; and, in a visit to North Carolina over the weekend, with protesters who have spoken out against the University and its leadership. She did not inform UNC’s chancellor or provost, she said, adding that she had not heard from them since June 30.

In her statement, Hannah-Jones reserved intense criticism for University leadership and suggested measures by which they could “redeem themselves, to live up to the university’s status as the people’s university.” Those suggestions included apologizing publicly and privately to student protesters who were not given an explanation of the trustees’ tenure meeting proceedings on June 30 and were forced out of the room and the building by law enforcement. She also asked leaders to commit to “recruiting, supporting, and retaining Black faculty”; to change the role that governing boards have over faculty governance; and to provide transparency “around the tenure debacle that led us here.”

“To date, neither myself, Dean King, my legal counsel, nor the public, have ever been told directly by the university why my tenure was not voted on in November, in January, or at any time before the forced vote in June.”

In a statement released Tuesday afternoon, Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz did not address Hannah-Jones’ calls for transparency regarding the handling of her tenure bid. He said he was “disappointed” she would not be coming to Carolina.

“In my conversations with Nikole, I have told her I appreciated her passion for Carolina and her desire to teach on our campus. While I regret she won’t be coming to Chapel Hill, the students, faculty and staff of Howard University will benefit from her knowledge and expertise. We wish her the best.”

Guskiewicz said that he “remained committed” to the recruitment and retention of “the world-class faculty that our students deserve at Carolina.”

“We must support and value every member of our community, and particularly our Black students, faculty and staff who, by sharing their experiences, have helped us understand their anger and frustration with this process and their experiences on our campus,” Guskiewicz said.

He added: “I recognize there are still questions and a great deal of work ahead.”

Dean King expressed disappointment, but not surprise, at Hannah-Jones’ decision.

“Of course, I’m disappointed that Nikole Hannah-Jones will not be joining the school this summer,” she said. “But I’m also aware it’s been a long six months for her and for our UNC students.

“This new opportunity to join Howard University as a Knight Chair offers her the chance to invest in students and great journalism. This is what we would want for her and the next generation of journalists. To also be able to move into a new Knight Chair means this great journalism foundation has made an even stronger investment in the future of our news industry and all because of Hannah-Jones and the issues raised by her tenure case.

“Hannah-Jones is an alum of our school and a loyal Tar Heel. We will call on her to continue to challenge and inspire our students from her new position. We wish her nothing but deep success and the hope that UNC can learn from this long tenure drama about how we must change as a community of scholars in order to grow as a campus that lives by its stated values of being a diverse and welcoming place for all.”

Faculty at the Hussman school released a statement saying they supported Hannah-Jones’ choice to join Howard. The statement also offered a blunt assessment of the events that led to her decision.

“The appalling treatment of one of our nation’s most-decorated journalists by her own alma mater was humiliating, inappropriate, and unjust.

“We will be frank: It was racist.

“Our school highly regards Ms. Hannah-Jones’ work, ability, and achievements. We regret that the top echelons of leadership at UNC-Chapel Hill failed to follow established processes, did not conduct themselves professionally and transparently, and created a crisis that shamed our institution, all because of Ms. Hannah-Jones’s honest accounting of America’s racial history. It is understandable why Ms. Hannah-Jones would take her brilliance elsewhere.”

Hannah-Jones, a 2020 Pulitzer Prize winner for her “1619 Project” for The New York Times Magazine, sailed through the lengthy tenure approval process. She then was awarded a Knight Chair in race and investigative journalism by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation; the endowment is designed to bring top professionals to classrooms to teach and mentor students. After the application for tenure had reached the provost’s office, where a request in January from the trustees’ University Affairs Committee for more time to consider it was granted, the application did not move to the trustees.

Hannah-Jones did not mention journalism school benefactor Walter Hussman Jr. ’68 by name in her statement, but she did call out the Arkansas media magnate, whose $25 million pledge in 2019 included conveying his name to the then-69-year-old school. Hussman was critical of Hannah-Jones’ work on “1619” and began last fall to express concern about her tenure candidacy in emails to Dean King, Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz and David Routh ’82, vice chancellor for university development.

“I cannot imagine working at and advancing a school named for a man who lobbied against me, who used his wealth to influence the hires and ideology of the journalism school, who ignored my 20 years of journalism experience, all of my credentials, all of my work, because he believed that a project that centered Black Americans equaled the denigration of white Americans.”

A staff writer for The New York Times Magazine, Hannah-Jones has been a lightning rod in Chapel Hill, drawing the attention of conservatives who see her as an advocate of the racial reckoning movement. Writers for the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal referred to her as “the founder of the infamous 1619 Project, which seeks to reframe American history as fundamentally racist” and said her hiring “signals a degradation of journalistic standards.” Those writers also opined: “In determining whether or not to approve a hire, the board must consider whether the individual prioritizes scholarship over political activism.”

“The 1619 Project,” named for the year that enslaved Black people first landed on American shores, is in the Times’ words an attempt “to reframe the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of Black Americans at the very center of the United States’ national narrative.” It was Hannah-Jones’ idea, and her Pulitzer was for its introductory commentary.

Historians, journalists and Times staff debated some of the material and questioned its accuracy. The paper added editing to the story and published clarifications but stood by the project.

Hannah-Jones began her career as an education reporter with The Chapel Hill News and then The News & Observer, where her coverage of school equity and the racial achievement gap in the Durham public school system led to school board action to improve education access and quality. She then worked as an enterprise reporter at The Oregonian before becoming an investigative reporter covering civil rights, discrimination, housing and school segregation at ProPublica. She joined The New York Times in 2015.

Among her national honors are the National Association of Black Journalists’ Journalist of the Year Award in 2015; Peabody and Polk awards for radio reporting in 2016; the Hillman Prize for magazine reporting and the National Magazine Award in 2017 and again in 2020; the MacArthur Fellowship in 2017; and Columbia University’s John Chancellor Award for Distinguished Journalism in 2018. The Society of American Historians welcomed her as a fellow in 2020.

This year, on April 9, she was inducted into the N.C. Media and Journalism Hall of Fame based at Hussman.

She received the GAA’s Distinguished Young Alumni Award in 2017, and she was profiled in “Schools of Choice” in the Carolina Alumni Review in March/April 2019.

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