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Nikole Hannah-Jones says UNC tenure fiasco indicative of broader racial inequality in higher learning

(NEW YORK) — Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones was offered tenure at the journalism school of her alma mater, the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, but she won’t be taking it.

Instead, she will go to Howard University after her tenure was initially blocked for months at North Carolina. The school’s board of trustees declined to vote twice in November and January on her tenure but finally voted in favor of it just last week.

Hannah-Jones would’ve been the first Black Knight Chair at the school and the first not to have been granted tenure.

“I think it showed that there was not a respect for what Black faculty go through on campus. We know that the University of North Carolina lost some recruits over this, other Black faculty are considering leaving the university,” she told ABC News Wednesday. “If they were able to do this to me — I work at the New York Times. I have a huge megaphone, I have a huge platform — what do they think they could get away with when it came to lesser-known scholars?”

Reports swirled in May that her application for tenure had been blocked at the last minute by several politically conservative trustees.

Those who publicly voiced their disapproval at her tenure included a donor for whom the university’s school of journalism is named. However, the donor, Walter Hussman, insists he “never pressured anybody.”

Hussman has spoken out against Hannah-Jones’ landmark work with the New York Times, “The 1619 Project,” for which she won a Pulitzer Prize. The project examines the role of slavery in the birth of the United States. Critics, including prominent historians, took issue with the portrayal of the American Revolution and requested corrections be made.

The project was backed by support from the New York Times’ executive editor, publisher and magazine editor. She said in a statement her tenure controversy was tied to “the political firestorm that has dogged me since The 1619 Project published” two years ago.

“Tenure matters for exactly the reason that I didn’t initially receive it. …oftentimes, academics are doing research and producing work that could be seen as controversial, or that challenges the status quo, and this protects the ability to pursue work that may not be popular with people who are politically powerful,” Hannah-Jones told ABC News. “The fact that initially I was denied tenure, largely because of the nature of my works, specifically around conservative objections to The 1619 Project speaks to why I could not come to the university without it.”

UNC Chancellor Kevin M. Guskiewicz said he is “disappointed” that Hannah-Jones won’t be joining the faculty.

“We wish her the best,” he said in a statement. “I remain committed to recruiting and retaining the world-class faculty that our students deserve at Carolina. Members of my leadership team and I are actively engaged with student, faculty and staff leaders to continue working together toward a more inclusive and equitable campus living, learning and working environment where everyone knows they belong.”

Hannah-Jones admonished Guskiewicz and other leaders at the school for not addressing the deadlock of her tenure.

“The Board of Trustees not voting was one thing. But to also have the chancellor and the provost of the university fail to speak out publicly, fail to say that the board of trustees should’ve treated me like every other professor who came in under the Knight Chair, I think that sent the message to other faculty on campus that they would not have the protection and the support of the administration if it came down to a fight with political appointees,” she said.

Hannah-Jones will be the inaugural Knight Chair in Race and Reporting at Howard University, a historically Black institution of higher education (HBCU). The Knight Foundation’s $5 million investment in the university includes $500,000 for the Knight Chair to help strengthen journalism teaching across HBCUs.

“Instead of fighting to prove I belong at an institution that until 1955 prohibited Black Americans from attending, I am instead going to work in the legacy of a university not built by the enslaved but for those who once were,” she said in her statement.

Hannah-Jones said she was approached by the dean of UNC’s Hussman School of Journalism and Media, Susan King, to become the school’s Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Reporting. Hannah-Jones said the request came during last year’s racial reckoning, and she saw a need for “journalists to have the knowledge, training, historical understanding and depth of reporting to cover the changing country and its challenges.”

She said she accepted, underwent a rigorous tenure process, and passed two votes, first by all professors, then the Promotion and Tenure Committee, which both overwhelmingly approved her tenure.

UNC’s Board of Trustees were meant to vote in November for her start in January 2021.

Then, “we learned that my tenure application had been pulled but received no explanation as to why. The same thing happened again in January,” Hannah-Jones said. “Both the university’s Chancellor and its Provost refused to fully explain why my tenure package had failed twice to come to a vote, or exactly what transpired.”

She said she was told they would not consider her tenure at that time, and offered her a five-year contract for tenure consideration at a later, unspecified date. She reluctantly agreed, becoming both the first Black Knight Chair at the school, and the first not to have been granted tenure.

After a report from NC Policy Watch about her tenure process and ensuing student protests, the board of trustees finally voted on Hannah-Jones’ tenure, and approved it in a split vote.

“I cannot imagine working at and advancing a school named for a man who lobbied against me, who used his wealth to influence the hires and ideology of the journalism school, who ignored my 20 years of journalism experience, all of my credentials, all of my work, because he believed a project that centered Black Americans equaled denigration of white Americans,” she said of Hussman. “Nor can I work at an institution whose leadership permitted this conduct and has done nothing to disavow it.”

Hussman told Poynter this week that he hoped to meet with Hannah-Jones and Dean Susan King, but the meeting never came together. After reading The 1619 Project, Hussman said he voiced concerns about his belief that the report exaggerated the role of slavery as a possible cause for the American Revolution, and insisted his objections were with the scholarship, not Hannah-Jones.

“I don’t have any judgment about her (personally) — I’ve never met her,” Hussman told Poynter. “I feel certain I did what I should appropriately have done. I didn’t lobby against her appointment.” He added that he had no objection to the latest UNC vote to offer Hannah-Jones tenure.

She said she still has not received answers about what happened in her tenure process. She called on UNC to provide transparency, apologize to student protestors, and address demands for recruiting, supporting and retaining Black faculty.

Hannah-Jones told ABC News the lack of Black tenured faculty in schools across the country can be traced back to a system where previously-tenured professors, often white, offer tenure to others and can be “self-replicating.” Also, she said Black scholars are studying issues of inequality and race, which are “not often valued as other types of scholarship.”

“I hope that other universities who might find it easy to point at the board of trustees in North Carolina and say ‘They’re just backwards,’ will do some real, internal introspection on the way that they are also blocking so many other talented Black faculty who dedicated their life to academia.”

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