UNC emails reveal extent of donor, trustee involvement in Hannah-Jones tenure case

·9 min read

Hundreds of emails released by UNC-Chapel Hill on Friday shed more light on the behind-the-scenes battle over a tenure package for acclaimed journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones, who ultimately decided to go elsewhere.

The emails show the efforts of megadonor Walter Hussman to dissuade UNC-CH trustees and university officials from offering Hannah-Jones a tenured position as a Knight Chair in the journalism school. They also show how a trustee’s questions about the tenure proposal appeared to push university officials to offer Hannah-Jones a nontenured position that the campus Board of Trustees would not have to act upon.

Hannah-Jones initially accepted the nontenured position. But when it became clear she was being treated differently than other Knight Chairs who had all received tenure, a firestorm ensued, with accusations that her work exposing racial injustice led to the disparate treatment.

Much of that vitriol was directed at the trustees, with many news media subsequently reporting that the board denied her tenure.

But the correspondence doesn’t back that up.

It shows four trustees in the loop about Hussman’s opposition — Chairman Richard Stevens and trustees Kelly Hopkins, Chuck Duckett and Jeff Brown. Duckett later raised the questions that initially stopped the tenure vote.

But how much did other trustees know about the tenure battle? At least one told Susan King, the journalism school dean, that she was being disingenuous in blaming trustees for losing Hannah-Jones.

“Your continued failure to come forth with the truth on these issues and your continued use of your blog account and letters to others to blame me and the Board of Trustees for what has happened in this instance is disturbing,” trustee Ralph Meekins, a Shelby lawyer, wrote in an email July 11. That was five days after Hannah-Jones announced she would be teaching at Howard University instead of UNC.

“You know, and we all know now, that you, the Knight Foundation, and Ms. Hannah-Jones entered into a contract in February, and never came back to the Board of Trustees to consider the tenure issue until this ‘uproar’ that you helped to orchestrate. Why are you continuing to blame the Board of Trustees for this delay? Why didn’t you bring it back to the Board of Trustees in March?”

‘Backroom conversations’

Meekins objected to claims the board only approved the tenure under pressure. The correspondence released Friday includes scores of emails from alumni and others chastising the board for not approving tenure earlier.

“We as the Board of Trustees voted for tenure,” Meekins said. “Had we been asked to consider this matter in March or June, I believe we would have made the same decision, once Mr. Duckett’s questions were answered and the matter was properly vetted.”

King said in response that a board member, whom she didn’t identify, first raised questions before a meeting in November in which Hannah-Jones’ tenure was initially up for consideration.

“I was informed that no tenure packages would be reviewed in November and that they were postponed until January,” King said. That posed a problem, because she had planned for Hannah-Jones to be teaching classes the next semester.

King acknowledged there “may have been backroom conversations and not formal ones and why all board members were not aware. I am not privy to those board deliberations.”

She said she agreed to offer Hannah-Jones the nontenured position “after I was told that the board was ‘reluctant’ to grant tenure to someone who had not worked at a university.”

That was the issue Duckett raised in his email to UNC-Chapel Hill Provost Bob Blouin on Jan. 23. He copied the email to UNC-CH Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz, to his chief of staff Amy Hertel and to Stevens.

‘We take granting tenure very seriously’

In that email, he told Blouin he would like to “postpone-remove” the tenure package from the January meeting “and let us fully understand this request and other examples of this happening.”

“I and others on the committee have serious concerns over granting tenure to a person that has not taught before,” Duckett wrote. “We take granting tenure very seriously.”

He suggested the board take up the tenure at the March meeting, and then came up with an alternative: “Maybe another accommodation makes more sense for the university and the taxpayer?”

The accommodation followed, King told Meekins in her follow up email.

“I realize now that agreeing to the fixed term contract was a mistake — that it was a ‘workaround’ that meant the board did not have to vote,” she said. “Once it was discovered that such an agreement was a breach of university norms, questions and concerns were raised.

“I take full blame for moving forward a contract that made the Knight Chair a lesser position within the school. Like others, I wanted her to join our faculty and this agreement, presented by the leadership, seemed a bold move of support for her and the school. I now can say it was not.”

The 1619 Project

Hannah-Jones, a former News & Observer reporters, works for The New York Times Magazine and has won some of the profession’s top honors for her reporting, including the Pulitzer Prize for commentary. She was named a MacArthur Fellow in 2017.

The Pulitzer was awarded last year for the essay she wrote for the magazine’s 1619 Project, which examined how slavery helped build the United States, and how its legacy continues to haunt the nation. The essay drew criticism from some historians who disputed her conclusion that the patriots largely fought the American Revolution to preserve slavery.

The Times later issued a clarification that revised the essay to say that some patriots, as opposed to many, held that motive.

The correspondence released Friday shows that Hussman first raised issues with offering Hannah-Jones tenure in September with David Routh, the vice chancellor for university development. Hussman sent Routh an opinion piece by one of those historians, Leslie M. Harris, who said the Times ignored her when she tried to point out the error as it fact-checked the essay.

In November, Hussman forwarded the email to Hopkins, and said he had sent emails to “Kevin, Susan and Erskine,” an apparent reference to Guskiewicz, King and Erskine Bowles, the former UNC System president.

Hussman wrote that offering Hannah-Jones (who at one point he mistakenly calls “Nicole Heather Jones”) a tenured position would be “controversial, contentious, and divisive.”

Duckett later voted for giving Hannah-Jones a tenured position on June 30. It passed by a 9 to 4 vote.

Two days before the vote, Duckett emailed a list of detailed questions to Blouin about Hannah-Jones’ recruitment and the tenure offer. Among them: “Was this job posted? Were other candidates considered?” He questioned whether she should be offered the job given that she has sued the university over how it handled her hiring.

Duckett also asked if there might be other “significant” positions open in the journalism school that could be offered to a “libertarian or conservative voice to add intellectual diversity and support the Program for Civil Discourse ... is that a priority of this administration?”

He also sought for the university to support the program, which has drawn criticism from faculty over its conservative ties, by having Hannah-Jones and Hussman “debate/discuss” their views on journalism.

Once the controversy over Hannah-Jones’ tenure came to light, King was flooded with phone calls and messages from within the UNC-Chapel Hill campus, news organizations wanting the story, the larger community of journalists and academics, and the public at large. The messages were a mix of support and vitriol directed at King, Hannah-Jones, the journalism school and the university.

Timeline of events

Joel Curran, vice chancellor for communications at UNC-Chapel Hill, said the documents released Friday contained little new information about the controversy over Hannah-Jones, which became a national news story and sparked debate about race, gender, academic freedom and the 1619 Project.

“Most of the findings offered in the public records released today, July 30, related to Nikole Hannah-Jones’ tenure candidacy have been previously disclosed in news reports,” Curran said in a statement. “The records correct the incorrect assertions suggesting the Board of Trustees chose not to take up her tenure decision in November.”

Curran summarized the timeline of the events around Hannah-Jones’ tenure discussion in his statement this way:

“The tenure application was not presented to the Board of Trustees in November 2020 because Provost Blouin was in the process of completing his review of the application at that time. The timing of Provost Blouin’s review was conveyed to Dean King at that time. He completed his review before the end of 2020, and he submitted the application for inclusion on the agenda of the Board’s University Affairs Committee prior to its January 2021 meeting and was prepared to present it.

“Shortly before the meeting,” Curran’s statement said, “the Chair of the University Affairs Committee elected not to include the application on the committee’s agenda because he wanted more time to request and consider additional information. Upon learning of the postponement, Dean King expressed concern to Provost Blouin and Chancellor Guskiewicz that the University risked losing Ms. Hannah-Jones to another university where she reportedly had other pending opportunities. To alleviate that risk, the University negotiated a variable track appointment with Ms. Hannah-Jones to assure that Ms. Hannah-Jones would join the faculty of the Hussman School of Journalism and Media in July 2021 and that the school would be able to submit her application for tenure at a later date. Ms. Hannah-Jones accepted that appointment in February 2021.

“Neither the Chancellor nor the Provost stated or speculated how they believed the Board may or may not have voted had the Board been presented with and considered the tenure application in November 2020 or in January 2021. The Board ultimately called a special meeting on June 30, 2021, to consider Ms. Hannah-Jones’ tenure application, and it voted to extend her an unconditional offer of tenure.”

Ultimately, trustees voted to offer tenure to Hannah-Jones. In early July, she turned down the offer and announced she would take a position at Howard University.

Staff writer Kate Murphy contributed to this report.

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