UNC still expects Hannah-Jones, who says she’s figuring out ‘the best way forward’

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It’s not clear exactly when — or even if — newly tenured professor Nikole Hannah-Jones will begin teaching at UNC-Chapel Hill. But the dean of UNC’s journalism school says it is still expecting her.

On Wednesday, Hannah-Jones released a statement after the prolonged tenure fight that said, “These last weeks have been very challenging and difficult and I need to take some time to process all that has occurred and determine what is the best way forward.”

She could not be reached by phone or email Thursday.

But Dean Susan King of the Hussman School of Journalism and Media said Thursday that “nothing has changed” in regard to Hannah-Jones joining the faculty and teaching this fall.

”It’s extremely satisfying that the process was completed and that there was an affirmation as her stature as a journalist,” King said. “I’ve been thinking this is not a great journalist, this is a once-in-a-generation journalist. We’re excited to have her here.”

King spoke with Hannah-Jones over the phone Wednesday after the votes had been cast to tell her she’d been granted tenure.

“She’s got to let it all sink in,” King said. “We had a good conversation, a very positive conversation.”

Teaching classes at UNC

Through her legal team, Hannah-Jones had told the university she would not take the UNC-CH job without tenure. She was set to begin Thursday, the day after the meeting where trustees granted her tenure.

“Today’s outcome and the actions of the past month are about more than just me,” Hannah-Jones, who is a Black woman, said in the statement released Wednesday evening. “This fight is about ensuring the journalistic and academic freedom of Black writers, researchers, teachers, and students. We must ensure that our work is protected and able to proceed free from the risk of repercussions, and we are not there yet.

When she was announced in April as the new Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism at the Hussman School, Hannah-Jones was scheduled to teach two courses, two days a week for the fall 2021 semester. Students have already signed up to take her class on investigative reporting and magazine writing.

Those courses are still available to students through Carolina Connect, but the instructor is currently listed as staff.

With the majority of her teaching load on Mondays, Hannah-Jones could drive or fly down to North Carolina to teach two classes on Monday and one class on Wednesday online. That would be a hybrid model, which faculty and students have become accustomed to during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Senior Sasha Schroeder is signed up to take the investigative reporting class that Hannah-Jones is set to teach.

“The big question that we all have now is if she’s going to come,” Schroeder said.

Schroeder was interested in the investigative reporting class before she knew Hannah-Jones would be the professor and was even more eager to take it once she found out.

“I’ve had so few women professors during my time at UNC … and especially so few women of color professors that I would absolutely love to be taught by her,” Schroeder said.

She said it’s been sad and frustrating to watch how this has played out, as well as seeing other faculty of color leave the university.

“I would completely understand if she didn’t want to come,” Schroeder said. “But I would be so honored to be taught by her, of course.”

Knight chair is a ‘coveted’ position

The Knight Chair is a prestigious position designed to bring successful industry professionals into academia.

The UNC-CH campus Board of Trustees had not previously offered Hannah-Jones tenure for the position, which previous Knight chairs at the school have received. Instead, she was offered a five-year, fixed-term contract as a professor with a $180,000 salary.

Hundreds of UNC-CH students, faculty, journalism professionals and scholars have said the board’s inaction was because of race, politics and Hannah-Jones’s work on The 1619 Project for The New York Times. The project explores the legacy and history of Black Americans and slavery and received the Pulitzer Prize. It has been a source of tension and debate among some historians and politicians.

The two most recent Knight Chairs, Penny Abernathy and JoAnn Sciarrino, are both white women.

Hannah-Jones was finally granted tenure after a month of public outcry, a threat of a federal lawsuit and a special meeting of the board Wednesday.

“The tenure process is long, it’s always long and it was excruciating, this one more than most,” King said.

Journalism professor Deb Aikat said he would be shocked and surprised if Hannah-Jones didn’t end up joining the faculty this fall, because this is one of the best jobs a journalism professor could get.

“The Knight Chairs are among the crème de la crème in our field, and these are very coveted positions,” Aikat said.

He said he’s not in a position to advise Hannah-Jones and he would understand if she chose not to accept the tenured teaching position, but 99 out of 100 people would take this offer.

Hannah-Jones will be one of the highest-paid faculty members in the journalism school. Her salary is on par with Abernathy’s, who retired in December after 12 years.

Aikat also noted Hannah-Jones’s expressed love of UNC-CH, annual visits to campus to speak and her guest lectures in his classes. She has a master’s degree from UNC-CH and previously worked in North Carolina as a reporter for The News & Observer.

“I’m happy for all of us,” Aiakat said. “Now I think it’s going to happen.”

When she spoke to faculty members in May, Hannah-Jones said very clearly that she doesn’t need another job, but wants this one, even without tenure, according to Aikat. In the midst of the tenure battle, some professors said she’d be giving up the fight if she walked away, he said.

“It would be unlike Nikole,” Aikat said. “She has never feared speaking truth to power or fighting the power.”

Lasting challenges at UNC

One of Hannah-Jones’s recent critics is Walter Hussman Jr., whose $25 million donation put his name on the journalism school. Hussman expressed his concerns about The 1619 Project and Hannah-Jones’s reporting style while she was being considered for the job.

In a statement following Wednesday’s vote to grant her tenure, Hussman said he looks “forward to meeting her and discussing journalism.”

Aiakat said Hannah-Jones now has two challenges if and when she comes to UNC-CH.

The first is teaching and excelling as a faculty member, he said and the second is Hussman, “a donor who has a voice.”

Trustee Chuck Duckett, who voted in favor of Hannah-Jones’s tenure, suggested the two of them sit down for a moderated discussion about journalism and share their experiences and values.

If she comes to UNC-CH as planned, the battle will have been won, according to Aikat, but the war is not over.

This issue “has left our campus fractured,” Aikat said.

The tenure fight has threatened faculty governance and academic autonomy, Aikat said. And faculty are also concerned about the lack of leadership as student protesters were shoved out of Wednesday’s board meeting after initially refusing to live for a closed session. Also, Aikat said, there are concerns about silence from UNC-CH leaders over the past few weeks.

“How can they just keep quiet when the whole campus is on fire?” Aikat said. “The chancellor is in a very vulnerable position. UNC has been deeply hurt with this controversy.”

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