The Nikole Hannah-Jones tenure controversy at UNC: Answers to common questions

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Acclaimed journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones and a team of lawyers are considering taking legal action against UNC-Chapel Hill for discrimination, following a wave of national outrage over her not getting tenure for a new position she will take at the university this summer.

Here’s what you need to know about the issue.

Who is Nikole Hannah-Jones?

Nikole Hannah-Jones is a Black woman and an investigative journalist for the New York Times who was hired this spring as UNC’s Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism at the Hussman School of Journalism and Media. The position is designed for industry greats to enter academia.

During her nearly two-decades long career in journalism, Hannah-Jones has won a MacArthur “Genius Grant,” a Peabody Award and a Pulitzer Prize for Commentary in 2020 for her work on The 1619 Project. She was recently elected to the American Academy of Arts & Sciences and inducted to the NC Media & Journalism Hall of Fame.

She’s not leaving her job at The Times, but will also be teaching at UNC. She’ll be making a $180,000 annual salary at UNC on a five-year, fixed-term contract that’s partially paid for by The Knight Foundation.

Hannah-Jones has a masters’ degree from UNC. She has previously worked at The News & Observer and The Oregonian.

Why didn’t Nikole Hannah-Jones get tenure?

The Knight Chair position has historically been tenured, meaning it’s a lifetime appointment that protects professors’ academic freedom and their job no matter how controversial their work might be.

When Hannah-Jones’s tenure candidacy was presented to the UNC Board of Trustees in January, they never voted on it so it was not approved.

Trustee Chuck Duckett, who chairs the committee that vets tenure candidates on behalf of the board, said he had questions about Hannah-Jones, including her teaching experience. He asked to postpone the matter to get answers, according to the university.

Instead, in March, Hannah-Jones was offered a fixed-term contract, with the option of being reviewed for tenure within five years. The announcement of her hiring was made in April.

Prominent scholars and UNC faculty have suggested that conservative politicians are behind the effort not to grant her tenure, in particular, because of her work on The 1619 Project. Some point to politics, race and gender.

The tenure issue has sparked national controversy over the past two weeks as hundreds of scholars, journalism professionals, UNC faculty, alumni and students have publicly stood up for Hannah-Jones. They’ve protested, sent letters and published statements criticizing UNC leaders. They’ve demanded the board reconsider Hannah-Jones’s tenure. One group of 1,619 UNC alumni and students bought a two-page spread advertisement in The News & Observer to defend her.

Even two of the sharpest critics of The 1619 Project — Princeton University professors Sean Wilentz and Keith Whittington — support Hannah-Jones getting tenure.

N&O reporter Kate Murphy talks to news partner ABC11 WTVD about the controversy over UNC's decision not to grant tenure to Nikole Hannah-Jones.

What is The 1619 Project?

The 1619 Project explores the legacy and history of Black Americans and slavery and was published by The New York Times in 2019. Hannah-Jones conceived of and led the project and won the Pulitzer Prize for Commentary in 2020 for her essay in it.

The 1619 Project has faced scrutiny from some historians and conservative politicians and led to a clarification from The Times, though the paper stands by her work.

One point that sparked debate was the claim that a “primary reason the colonists fought the American Revolution was to protect the institution of slavery,” according to The Times.

It’s also been recently debated in Congress and state and local legislatures as an example of an educational program that teaches about systemic racism and slavery. Some politicians say it puts “advocacy ahead of historical accuracy,” The Times reported.

More than 150 scholars and historians recently wrote and signed a letter in The Root, an African American-oriented online magazine, explaining the importance of The 1619 Project.

Professor and historian Glenda Elizabeth Gilmore said in an email to The News & Observer they represent the “overwhelming sentiment in the profession, not the six historians who wrote to criticize 1619.”

She and others called The 1619 Project “a landmark exploration of America’s deep roots in enslavement.” They say it offers an opportunity for “thousands of students across the nation to think more deeply about the year 1619 and the defining role of slavery in U.S. history.”

Can the UNC board reconsider her tenure?

The UNC trustees have received an official re-submission for Hannah-Jones’s tenure appointment. So, it’s back in their hands, and the committee is reviewing her dossier.

But, they don’t have to vote on it.

When will the board take it up?

That’s not clear. The next official board meeting is scheduled for July 14 and 15 in Chapel Hill, after Hannah-Jones is set to start her job.

When does she start?

Hannah-Jones is set to begin her job as a professor at UNC-CH’s journalism school on July 1.

What about this potential lawsuit?

Attorneys from the NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund, Inc., Levy Ratner PC, and Ferguson, Chambers & Sumter, P.A. are representing Hannah-Jones as she considers a federal lawsuit against UNC-Chapel Hill.

Hannah-Jones said she had “no desire to bring turmoil or a political firestorm” to her alma mater UNC. She said she was excited to return to UNC, a place that she loves and that launched her career.

“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,” Hannah-Jones said.

Hannah-Jones said she retained legal counsel to “ensure the academic and journalistic freedom of Black writers is protected to the full extent of the law and to seek redress for the University of North Carolina’s adverse actions against me.”

The group said in a statement that UNC-CH has “unlawfully discriminated against Hannah-Jones based on the content of her journalism and scholarship and because of her race.”

Why are NC lawmakers involved?

Hannah-Jones’s legal team sent a letter informing North Carolina lawmakers of their duty to preserve records related to her hiring, connecting the board’s decision to the Republican-dominated state legislature.

Republican Senate leader Phil Berger’s spokesperson Pat Ryan told The News & Observer that the legislature does not influence faculty hiring decisions or terms at UNC System schools.

In some ways, the UNC System’s top governing body is seen as an extension of North Carolina’s General Assembly. The state legislature appoints the members of the UNC System Board of Governors. That Board of Governors and state lawmakers also appoint members of the UNC-CH campus Board of Trustees, which approves tenure for faculty.

Who has tenure at UNC-Chapel Hill?

Hannah-Jones hasn’t said much publicly until her statement about the potential lawsuit. But in that statement and a few tweets, she’s made one thing clear: this fight is bigger than her.

The university gives another snapshot of full-time permanent faculty in 2020 in an April 2021 report by the university’s Institutional Research and Assessment:

About 35% of faculty members at UNC have tenure, according to the report.

536 women had tenure at UNC, compared to 891 men.

About 37% of tenured faculty members are women, yet women make up more than half the faculty.

About 25% of female faculty members at UNC have tenure.

When looking at tenured faculty by race, 69 professors are Black or African-American, which is less than 5% of all tenured faculty.

Black or African-American professors make up 5.5% of the entire faculty.

About 80% of tenured faculty are white, and white professors make up just under 75% of the entire faculty at UNC.

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