Nikole Hannah-Jones won’t join the UNC-Chapel Hill faculty unless she gets tenure

Nikole Hannah-Jones
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Journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones says she will not join the faculty at UNC-Chapel Hill unless she has tenure, NC PolicyWatch reported Tuesday, citing a letter from her legal team sent to the university this week.

She will not start her job as Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism at the Hussman School of Journalism and Media on July 1, according to the letter. Hannah-Jones appears to be rescinding the five-year, fixed-term contract that was offered and pursuing a tenure appointment.

The letter was shared with members of the UNC-CH Board of Trustees, who vote on and approve faculty tenure, on Tuesday afternoon.

The board has not offered Hannah-Jones, a Black woman, tenure for the position, which previous Knight Chairs at UNC-CH have received.

‘The reputation of UNC in their hands’

Dean Susan King of the journalism school told The News & Observer on Tuesday evening that she has not heard from the administration about this development but, if true, UNC needs the board’s leadership now more than ever.

“They have the reputation of UNC in their hands, and I do believe they are honorable people,” King said. “I look forward to their vote.”

For weeks, professional journalists, scholars and UNC-CH faculty, alumni and students have defended Hannah-Jones and demanded that the board grant her tenure immediately. The national controversy stems from criticism that race, politics and Hannah-Jones’s work on The 1619 Project are behind the board’s decisions. The project, which was published in The New York Times, explores the legacy and history of Black Americans and slavery.

A number of Black faculty and staff have said they are considering leaving the university because they feel undervalued on campus, particularly after this case.

Hannah-Jones’s attorneys threatened a federal lawsuit in late May, saying UNC-CH “unlawfully discriminated against Hannah-Jones based on the content of her journalism and scholarship and because of her race.”

While no lawsuit has been filed, UNC-Chapel Hill officials and Hannah-Jones’s legal team have been directly discussing her employment at the university.

The UNC-CH board can meet at any time to officially discuss and vote on Hannah-Jones’s tenure appointment. Despite public pressure and a legal threat, the board has not called a special meeting. Its next meeting is scheduled for July 14 and 15 in Chapel Hill, after Hannah-Jones is set to start her job.

Hannah-Jones’s hiring process at UNC

Hannah-Jones was hired this spring as the Knight Chair, a position that is designed to bring successful industry professionals into academia and has historically come with tenure at Carolina.

Hannah-Jones is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist for The New York Times who has spent nearly two decades in the journalism industry, including at The News & Observer. She’s won a MacArthur “Genius Grant,” a Peabody Award and a George Polk Award. She earned her master’s degree from UNC-CH in 2003.

Her best-known work, The 1619 Project, has faced criticism from some historians and conservative politicians. The Times published a clarification to Hannah-Jones’s piece. The Times and more than 150 scholars, historians and UNC-CH faculty have defended Hannah-Jones and her work.

The project is also a source of debate in Congress and state legislatures as lawmakers discuss Critical Race Theory and school curriculum that teaches about systemic racism and slavery.

University leaders have argued that the board never denied Hannah-Jones tenure because trustees never voted on the matter. Her tenure was supposed to be discussed at the January 2021 trustees meeting, but it was stalled because trustee Chuck Duckett had questions about her candidacy, according to the university.

In March, UNC-CH offered Hannah-Jones a fixed-term contract, with the option of being reviewed for tenure within five years. Her hiring was announced in April and she was set to begin on July 1, making a $180,000 annual salary at UNC-CH, while keeping her job at the New York Times.

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