Fallout continued to grow this week following the University of North Carolina’s Board of Trustees’ decision not to grant tenure to alumnus Nikole Hannah-Jones, a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist.
A group of 38 faculty members at UNC’s Hussman School of Journalism and Media signed a statement Friday again condemning the board for its decision.
“It seems apparent that the UNC Board of Trustees has again failed to review Nikole Hannah-Jones’s dossier for appointment as the Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism with tenure, despite affirmation at all previous levels of rigorous review,” the faculty wrote, adding, “The fact that the Board’s inaction might have resulted from donor influence is especially alarming.”
Hannah-Jones founded the 1619 Project for the New York Times Magazine, which reframed the nation’s history surrounding slavery and garnered criticism from conservatives, including former President Donald Trump. Hannah-Jones won the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for commentary for the project.
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Nikole Hannah-Jones, lead writer for The New York Times Magazine’s "The 1619 Project." (Photo: The New York Times)
In April, Hannah-Jones was offered a five-year teaching contract as the Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism at UNC, spurring outrage from supporters amid speculation the board received pressure from conservatives to not grant tenure. Knight chairs historically have been hired with tenure.
The 13-member Board of Trustees is composed of four people appointed by the state’s Republican-majority General Assembly, eight people elected by the Board of Governors – who are appointed by the General Assembly – and the president of student government. Ten are white men.
Alumni, students, faculty, academics, professional athletes and more than 30 groups have called on the board to grant tenure. Following the backlash, the faculty committee that handles tenure matters resubmitted its recommendation that Hannah-Jones receive tenure late last month.
Last Saturday, the NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund, Inc. sent a letter to UNC threatening a federal lawsuit if the school did not grant tenure by Friday, according to online outlet NC Policy Watch.
A spokesperson for UNC-Chapel Hill said in a statement Friday the university “responded to a letter from the NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund, Inc. regarding Nikole Hannah-Jones’ employment.”
“We look forward to continued dialogue with her counsel,” spokesperson Joel Curran said.
The NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund, Inc. did not respond to a request for comment Saturday.
Susan King, dean of the Hussman School of Journalism and Media, told USA TODAY she is concerned about the effect the ongoing matter is having on the school.
“I’ve worked for almost a decade for this great university that is such an asset for students and the state. I am worried about a chilling effect on our current dedicated faculty and those we will recruit,” she said. “I am hoping for the best outcome.”
Faculty in the UNC College of Arts and Science’s chemistry department wrote to university officials this week about the “dire repercussions” of the tenure case. The faculty said the case is “impacting our ability to recruit and attract a diverse and talented faculty person.”
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The department said it had been working for two years to recruit renowned chemist Lisa Jones, an associate professor in the Department of Pharmaceutical Sciences at the University of Maryland School of Pharmacy, who withdrew her candidacy in the wake of the tenure case. In a letter withdrawing her candidacy, Jones said the news Hannah-Jones was denied tenure was “very disheartening.”
“It does not seem in line with a school that says it is interested in diversity,” Jones wrote. “Although I know this decision may not reflect the view of the school’s faculty, I will say that I cannot see myself accepting a position at a university where this decision stands. I appreciate all of the effort you have put into trying to recruit me but for me, this is hard to overlook.”
Hannah-Jones said on Twitter she had never met Jones, “but the solidarity shown me by Black women in particular during this crucible is something I will never forget.”
Meanwhile, the head of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, a major funder of the university, recently wrote to the Board of Trustees to express “concern” about the school’s decision not to grant Hannah-Jones tenure, according to a letter obtained by NC Policy Watch this week and confirmed by USA TODAY.
“To honor our commitment to ethical conduct and practices, we ask that the UNC Board help us understand the steps it is taking to ensure that Ms. Hannah-Jones is treated fairly and equitably in decisions regarding her appointment,” CEO Richard Besser wrote.
It was not immediately clear if or when the Board of Trustees would reconsider Hannah-Jones’ tenure. Hannah-Jones is set to begin teaching at UNC in July.
On Friday, she shared photos to Twitter of a framed statement related to her induction into the North Carolina Media and Journalism Hall of Fame.
“This arrived today … and I feel so sad about it all,” she said. “Keep your heads up, y’all.”
The Tucker family poses with Nikole Hannah-Jones, Creator of the New York Times 1619 project during an event honoring the 400th year anniversary of the first 20+ Angolans to arrive in America on Monday, Dec. 16, 2019 at the Smithsonian Museum of African Art. The Tucker family of Hampton, Va., including Wanda Tucker, the main subject of USA TODAY's 1619 project, was honored by the Embassy of Angola on Dec. 16, 2019 during a program marking the 400th year since the arrival of enslaved Angolan people (including Tucker ancestors) to what is now Virginia. The program took place at the Smithsonian Museum of African Art in Washington. (Photo: Jarrad Henderson, USA TODAY)
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