Nikole Hannah-Jones ’03 (MA) has been invited to come to Chapel Hill — with tenure.
The Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and MacArthur Fellowship “genius grant” winner was awarded tenure by the UNC Board of Trustees in a 9-4 vote in a special session Wednesday, a day before she had originally been set to start working for UNC. She has been welcomed by the board as the Knight Chair in race and investigative journalism at the Hussman School of Journalism and Media.
The vote by the trustees ends the latest tumultuous chapter on a campus that continues to be beset by controversy around the issues of academic freedom and race and reckoning. It comes more than a month after news broke 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.
On Wednesday, they got their wish.
“I knew that when the board reviewed [Hannah-Jones’] tenure dossier and realized the strength of her teaching, service and professional vision they would be moved to grant tenure,” Hussman Dean Susan King said after the vote. “She is a journalist’s journalist, a teacher’s teacher and a woman of substance with a voice of consequence. Hannah-Jones will make our school better with her presence.”
King thanked “the greater Carolina community of students, faculty, staff and alumni who have stood by our school, the centrality of journalism to democracy, the ideals of the University — and to Hannah-Jones herself.”
In announcing the decision, presiding trustee R. Gene Davis Jr. ’90 (’97 JD) invoked the history of free speech and debate on campus: “A great university is not the absence of tension or debate; rather, what makes us great is the constructive tension, the civil disagreements, the iron sharpening-iron that happens in an academic setting at its best. In looking back at the history of our University, you will find moments of great tension in almost every era. But as we sit here today, we can look back and see that those tensions and debates created a better University, and this, too, will make us better.
“Today, we take an important step in creating an even better University. … We welcome Nikole Hannah-Jones back to Chapel Hill.”
That tension continued even as the trustees’ special meeting got underway. A group of 75 student protesters, organized by the Black Student Movement, had gathered in the ballroom at The Carolina Inn where trustees were meeting and refused to leave as the board moved into closed session. Law enforcement officers removed the students from the meeting room; the protesters had not been notified in advance of the impending closed session. Student body President Lamar Richards, who also is a trustee, phoned one protester to explain that personnel matters taken up by the board were discussed in private, according to a News & Observer report.
Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz said the tenure decision marked “an important day for our campus. We still have a lot more work ahead and are committed to working to build our community together to ensure that all voices are heard and that everyone on our campus knows they belong. Ultimately, I am glad that the matter of tenure for Nikole Hannah-Jones has been resolved. Professor Hannah-Jones will add great value to our University. Our students are eager to learn from her, and we are ready to welcome her to the Carolina faculty as soon as possible.”
Hannah-Jones issued a statement through her legal team Wednesday thanking supporters. The statement also left open questions about her plans at UNC.
“Today’s outcome and the actions of the past month are about more than just me,” she wrote in the statement. “This fight is about ensuring the journalistic and academic freedom of Black writers, researchers, teachers, and students. We must ensure that our work is protected and able to proceed free from the risk of repercussions, and we are not there yet. These last weeks have been very challenging and difficult and I need to take some time to process all that has occurred and determine what is the best way forward.”
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, a staff writer for The New York Times Magazine, 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 of the story and published clarifications but stood by the project.
The possibility of a tenured faculty position in UNC’s Hussman School of Journalism and Media for Hannah-Jones went back on the table on May 26.
Members of the Board of Trustees, including the chair of the University Affairs Committee to which tenure applications go first, responded to a steady stream of criticism of the trustees’ refusal to grant Hannah-Jones tenure by saying that the tenure application had been resubmitted by the faculty committee that considers tenure.
Among those critics had been the chancellor’s Commission on History, Race and a Way Forward — set up to guide UNC’s reckoning with its racial history — which said it joined “others in the Carolina community who have called you to account for refusing to review the faculty recommendation that Nikole Hannah-Jones be appointed Knight professor of journalism, with tenure.”
“Intentionally or not,” the commission co-chairs wrote to the trustees, “you have enlisted the university in the project of historical denialism that refuses to confront the centrality of race and racism in our national past and in the life of our nation, state, and university today. In the absence of any measure of transparency, you leave us with deeply disturbing facts.
“You denied a Black woman tenure after a rigorous review by Carolina faculty and external academic evaluators. Prior appointees to the Knight chair at UNC were white and were awarded tenure. Your claim that Hannah-Jones should be treated differently because she comes from outside the academy does not bear scrutiny.” Members of the commission signed the letter.
In its letter, the Commission on History, Race and a Way Forward stated that two of Hannah-Jones’ sharpest critics — Sean Wilentz and Keith Whittington, both chaired professors at Princeton University — wrote in The Chronicle of Higher Education on May 25 that “[w]e have been critical of Hannah-Jones’ best-known work in connection with ‘The 1619 Project,’ and we remain critical. We also respect the judgment and the authority of the University of North Carolina’s faculty and administration. For the Board of Trustees to interfere unilaterally on blatantly political grounds is an attack on the integrity of the very institution it oversees.”
Thirty-five Hussman faculty members said in a letter that they were “stunned,” and 31 student leaders wrote to Hannah-Jones that they were “frustrated and disappointed that our University, the flagship institution of the UNC System, has failed not only you, an outstanding alumna, but its students, its faculty, its community as a whole — and yes, the spirit upon which Carolina was founded: Lux Libertas — light and liberty.”
The Carolina Black Caucus, an advocacy group for Black UNC faculty and staff, reported that 70 percent of attendees at a meeting in June were considering leaving UNC. In May, the group wrote, “The decision to back out of offering Hannah-Jones tenure with her appointment is yet another example of UNC’s lack of commitment to ensuring that our Black student population sees themselves in their instructional faculty.” The trustees’ May 20 meeting was interrupted by people protesting the decision. Twenty-one Knight Chair holders from across the country and the National Association of Black Journalists announced their opposition.
The vote resolves Hannah-Jones’ future in Chapel Hill, but the debates its controversy ignited are likely to continue. Numerous campus leaders had issued calls to action in recent weeks, each conveying that the Hannah-Jones’ controversy was just one chapter in an ongoing narrative around the consequences of marginalization and threats to academic freedom at UNC.
“Carolina is not prepared for the ‘reckoning’ of which it continues to speak, and it is certainly not prepared to face the reality of having to undo the entire system upon which it was built — and rebuild,” student body President Richards, who was sworn in as a trustee in May, wrote in an open letter to the campus community on June 17. “Until this rebirth occurs, Carolina is not deserving of your talents, aspirations, or successes. If you are a student, staff member, or academic from a historically marginalized identity exploring UNC, I invite you to look elsewhere. If you are considering graduate school, law school, medical school, or other professional programs at UNC, I challenge you to seek other options. While Carolina desperately needs your representation and cultural contributions, it will only bring you here to tokenize and exploit you. And to those that will attempt to misconstrue these words — my words — understand this: I love Carolina, yes, but I love my people and my community more.”
Faculty Chair Mimi Chapman ’97 (PhD), in a June 22 letter, urged faculty and staff leaders to come off the sidelines and “speak loudly and with one voice.”
“If outside bodies, in this case the BOT, without subject matter expertise are the arbiters of faculty scholarship, all faculty members run the risk of being punished for work that questions the status quo, threatens some outside interest, or makes people uncomfortable,” Chapman wrote. “Such a path takes us back to times when scholars from Socrates to Galileo were punished for their ideas. That is a path where light and liberty die. Don’t let it. Use your voice. Keep going. Stand strong.”
Barbara Rimer, dean of UNC’s Gillings School of Global Public Health, posted a letter on the school’s website on June 22 calling on trustees to act.
“For weeks, I have felt my voice was not needed, but I am so concerned about what is happening to the reputation of this university, to collective morale, and to people of color at UNC-Chapel Hill that I cannot remain silent,” Rimer wrote.
On Friday, June 25, the Black Student Movement organized a “solidarity demonstration” for Hannah-Jones in front of South Building with more than 200 students, faculty and alumni attending.
The process to grant Hannah-Jones tenure began on June 12, 2020, when Hussman Dean Susan King called a meeting of the school’s full professors to discuss adding Hannah-Jones to the faculty as Knight chair in race and investigative journalism.
In September 2020, Walter Hussman Jr. ’68 — whose $25 million pledge a year earlier included conveying his name to the then-69-year-old school — sent the first of several emails to UNC administrators, including to David Routh ’82, vice chancellor for university development, expressing concern over the content of Hannah-Jones’ “1619 Project.”
On Sept. 30, after Hannah-Jones’ application cleared both the Hussman school’s recommendation committee and a vote by the school’s full professors, it moved to the University faculty committee that reviews and endorses tenure bids.
In November, Hannah-Jones’ dossier reached the provost, who did not immediately forward her application to the trustees. The provost needed time to gather answers to questions about the application that had come from “informal channels,” according to an open letter later released by Chapman, the faculty chair.
In late December, Hussman told King that he had hoped the school would “be the champion of objective, impartial reporting and separating news and opinion” and that he was worried that Hannah-Jones’ controversial work on “1619” would “overshadow” it. Guskiewicz and Routh were copied on Hussman’s email.
In January 2021, the trustees received Hannah-Jones’ application for tenure consideration from the provost but did not act on it.
In February, Hannah-Jones “reluctantly” agreed to a five-year appointment as professorship of the practice, which does not require the trustees’ approval.
On March 2, Robert Blouin, UNC’s provost, sent Hannah-Jones a letter detailing a $180,000 salary and fixed-term appointment to begin July 1, 2021. “We expect that you will be considered for a tenured appointment during or at the conclusion of the term of this appointment,” the letter stated.
On the last Monday in April, the Hussman school announced that Hannah-Jones would join the faculty in July as a Knight Chair.
Three and a half weeks later, on May 19, NC Policy Watch reported that Hannah-Jones was not offered tenure, although previous Knight Chairs had been granted it. Condemnations followed from faculty and observers nationwide.
The next day, trustees’ Chair Richard Stevens ’70 (’74 MPA, ’74 JD) explained that Hannah-Jones’ bid was stalled in January after trustee Charles Duckett ’82, chair of the board’s University Affairs Committee, had contacted the provost — the last person to see tenure packages before they go to the trustees — with questions about the application and had asked for more time to consider it. Therefore, Stevens said, “neither the provost nor the chancellor ever presented any recommendation on the appointment to the board, nor did the board take any action on this appointment. We took no action on this appointment.”
Faculty Chair Chapman took issue: “If her name had never gone over, then Chair Duckett, how would he know to ask the question?”
Four days later, on May 24, UNC’s Faculty Executive Committee passed a resolution urging the trustees to “take up the matter of tenure for Nikole Hannah-Jones immediately, and to explain to the fullest extent possible, without violating the law, the reasons for its decision.” Richards, the new student body president and a member of the Board of Trustees by virtue of his office, also demanded that the board consider her tenure.
A day later, on May 25, the University committee that endorses tenure resubmitted its recommendation, including Hannah-Jones’ application materials, to Duckett. He said then that there was no timeline set for review and that it was the first time he had seen her dossier. Among his concerns, he said, was her lack of classroom experience.
Critics responded that the Knight Chair program is designed to bring professionals into academic settings.
On May 26, UNC System President Peter Hans ’91 and the system’s Board of Governors Chair Randy Ramsey said it was not the system’s place to intervene in a trustees’ matter.
On May 27, Hannah-Jones’ legal team gave the University a June 4 deadline to offer her tenure and avoid a lawsuit. The trustees did not respond; no lawsuit was filed.
Nearly a month later, on June 22, Hannah-Jones’ lawyers informed the University that she would not join the Hussman faculty without tenure after learning that “political interference and influence from a powerful donor contributed to the Board of Trustees’ failure to consider her tenure application.” They wrote that Hannah-Jones “cannot trust that the University would consider her tenure application in good faith during the period of the fixed-term contract.”
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; Columbia University’s John Chancellor Award for Distinguished Journalism in 2018; and a second Journalist of the Year Award in 2019. The Society of American Historians welcomed her as a fellow in 2020. On April 9, she was inducted into the N.C. Media and Journalism Hall of Fame.