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UNC-Chapel Hill trustees voted to approve tenure for distinguished journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones at a meeting Wednesday afternoon, bringing a resolution to the national controversy that has ensued over her hire.
Hannah-Jones, who is a Black woman, is to join the UNC-CH faculty Thursday as the Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism at the Hussman School of Journalism and Media. However, she and her legal team had said she would not begin the job without tenure.
The Board of Trustees had not previously offered Hannah-Jones tenure for the position, which other Knight chairs at UNC-CH have received. The board voted to do so at Wednesday’s meeting, which was triggered by UNC-CH Student Body President Lamar Richards making an official petition for a special meeting on this issue.
Richards is one of two Black trustees on the board that’s making this decision. Ten of the 13 trustees are white men.
The vote was 9-4 in favor of granting tenure.
Protesters disrupt meeting
Dozens of protesters showed up at the meeting at the Carolina Inn, including Julia Clark, vice president of the UNC Black Student Movement and a junior from Washington. Clark said she did not expect the trustees to vote to grant tenure to Hannah-Jones.
“Honestly, I’ve become accustomed to expecting the worst from this board,” Clark said. Even if the board votes yes, she said, “It will change nothing because this should never have happened in the first place.”
Clark said she felt that the university is at an important juncture and the trustees, chancellor and administrators could decide to move UNC in the direction of greater equity for students and employees of color. It just depends, she said, “whether they want to embrace progress or if they want to fight it.”
Carol Shirley, who graduated with a master’s degree from the journalism school in 2013, went into the meeting with other protesters. She said that even if the board approved tenure for Hannah-Jones, the matter of the board’s racial and gender makeup will remain an issue.
Seventy-five people were allowed into the room as the meeting began, and organizers asked that Black participants be allowed in first. When the board voted to go into closed session, some protesters refused to leave and were forcibly removed while yelling at officers.
Protesters stood outside the door yelling at officers and trustees, while the trustees appeared to be waiting for the crowd to clear before actually beginning the tenure discussion.
The Black Student Movement organized the protest at the meeting inside the Hill Ballroom at The Carolina Inn, saying trustees “will hear and respect our concerns as Black students.”
UNC journalism school faculty, staff and supporters met on the steps of Carroll Hall at 2:30 p.m. and walked to the Carolina Inn together for the Board of Trustees meeting.
Most of the board members and Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz attended the meeting in person. Richards, Chair Richard Stevens and two other trustees tuned in on Zoom.
Confusion over closed session
The meeting was expected to go into closed session, as is typical with personnel matters like tenure appointments. However, that was never explained to protesters who were upset that the vote would not be in public.
Protesters rattled the door demanding to be let back in and criticized the police officers and trustees for keeping the meeting closed.
Taliajah “Teddy” Vann, president of the Black Student Movement, yelled at the trustees through the door with a megaphone asking what they were hiding.
They also shouted that they were disappointed that Richards voted to go into closed session.
Richards called Vann to tell them why he voted that way, saying it was done to protect Hannah-Jones.
He explained on Twitter that it is legal and standard procedure to discuss tenure and personnel matters in closed session.
“The reason for this is crucial because depending on any outcome of this meeting we do not want there to be any contest made that could potentially impact/ interfere w/ stuff in the future surrounding this issue,” Richards tweeted. “Our fight is for her to be treated the same as every other candidate.”
Hannah-Jones shared his tweet and said her legal team did not request the closed session.
“The closed session is the normal procedure for tenure votes and our desire was, for the first time in this process, to be treated by the BoT like every other tenure candidate,” she said.
Hannah-Jones sent another tweet saying it “should have been communicated how this meeting would go, that tenure proceedings are always held in closed session, and an attempt made to de-escalate.”
“Instead Black students were shoved and punched because they were confused about the process,” she said. “This is not right.”
Support for tenure
The university has been under fire for weeks as professional journalists, scholars and UNC-CH faculty, alumni and students have criticized the board’s failure to offer her tenure. They say 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 and won a Pulitzer Prize, reframes the country’s history by putting the legacy and history of Black Americans and slavery at the forefront.
The issue has prompted multiple campus protests, a threat of a federal discrimination lawsuit and statements of support from national and local organizations. It also underscores the feelings from Black faculty, staff and students who say the university does not value them or create a safe, inclusive environment for people of color.
Nearly 500 UNC-CH faculty signed a letter sent to trustees Tuesday calling for the board to approve Hannah-Jones’s tenure appointment at the special meeting.
The letter details how this “intrusion of the Board” into faculty decisions like the tenure process “puts at risk the bedrock assumptions of academic freedom and free intellectual inquiry and integrity.“
It says the failure to grant Hannah-Jones tenure “exemplifies a cultural, political and racial climate that questions the scholarship, accomplishments, and personhood of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC).
“BIPOC faculty and staff are now even more concerned about the university’s ability to address racial equity,” the letter says.
How Hannah-Jones came to UNC
Hannah-Jones was recruited by Dean Susan King and hired to join the journalism faculty this spring as the Knight Chair. The prestigious position is designed to bring successful industry professionals into academia as professors. In March, Hannah-Jones was offered a five-year, fixed term contract as a professor with a $180,000 salary and planned to keep her job at The New York Times.
Hannah-Jones is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist for The New York Times, where she focuses on racial injustice. She earned her master’s degree from UNC-CH and has spent nearly two decades as a reporter, including at The News & Observer. Hannah-Jones has earned several professional accolades, including a MacArthur “Genius Grant,” a Peabody Award and George Polk Award.
She is best known for creating The 1619 Project, which has faced criticism from some historians and conservative politicians and the UNC-CH journalism school’s top donor. The Times published a clarification to Hannah-Jones’s piece while defending it. More than 150 scholars, historians and UNC-CH faculty have also supported Hannah-Jones and her work.
The project has also been debated in Congress and state legislatures as lawmakers discuss Critical Race Theory and how schools should teach about systemic racism and slavery.
And it’s been at the center of this controversy at UNC-CH.
University leaders have argued that the board never denied Hannah-Jones tenure because trustees never voted on the matter. Her tenure appointment, along with other candidates, was scheduled to be discussed at the January 2021 trustees meeting. But trustees never acted on it because trustee Chuck Duckett had questions about her candidacy, according to the university.
UNC-CH announced she was joining the UNC-CH faculty as a professor, with the option of being reviewed for tenure within five years.
After news of the issue spread in late May, the board received an official re-submission to consider Hannah-Jones’s tenure appointment. The decision has been in their control since.
This meeting is the first step trustees have taken to consider her tenure appointment, but it’s not guaranteed that the board will approve it at Wednesday’s meeting.