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'A disappointing decision': UNC community upset after Nikole Hannah-Jones' non-tenure

Nikole Hannah-Jones

Photos are owned by the MacArthur Foundation and licensed under a Creative Commons license: CC-BY.
Credit: John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

Photo is of Nikole Hannah-Jones

UNC students, staff and faculty are showing support for Pulitzer Prize and MacArthur "Genius Grant" winner Nikole Hannah-Jones after UNC backed down from offering her a tenured professorship as the Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism for the Hussman School of Journalism and Media. 

Last week, NC Policy Watch reported that the UNC Board of Trustees chose not to take action on approving Hannah-Jones' tenure due to political pressure from conservatives who object to her work on the 1619 Project.

The non-action caused backlash from the UNC community. Many took to Twitter to raise their indignation with the choice, a rally was held before and during the Board's meeting on Thursday and many organizations released statements in support of Hannah-Jones — including the Carolina Association of Black Journalists and National Association of Hispanic Journalists at UNC and Knight Foundation President Alberto Ibargüen.

Jones’ background

Hannah-Jones, who graduated from the journalism school with her master's degree in 2003,  founded the 1619 Project in 2019, which aimed to reframe U.S history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of Black Americans at the center. The project gained immediate support but also garnered backlash from conservatives.

Hannah-Jones was granted the MacArthur Foundation “Genius Grant” in 2017, the Pulitzer Prize for Commentary in 2020 for her work on the 1619 Project, and on April 9, she was inducted to the North Carolina Media Hall of Fame.  

Despite not being awarded tenure, she will join the journalism faculty on July 1 for a fixed, five-year term with the option of being reviewed for tenure at the end.

Community reaction

The non-action was met with indignation among UNC students, staff and faculty. Hussman doctoral student Sophia Noor Kiser said she felt Hannah-Jones was very qualified for the position. 

“Nikole-Hannah Jones is a MacArthur Genius, a Pulitzer Prize winner and has changed the conversation around race in the U.S,” she said. “What more could you want?”

Kiser said the Board of Trustees needs to take action if it's serious about promoting diversity, equity and inclusion. 

“Especially in this national climate, this is a seriously disappointing decision," Kiser said. "(Hannah-Jones) deserves tenure.”

On May 20, Hussman faculty issued an open letter regarding the University’s failure to award tenure to Hannah-Jones. In the letter, they said the University’s decision violates long-standing norms relating to tenure and promotion at UNC. 

A total of 46 Hussman faculty members signed the letter, and it received an additional 300 signatures from other UNC faculty members and Hussman graduate students.

The statement said previous Knight chairs at the University received tenure upon appointment, including Phil Meyer, Robert Lauterborn, Penny Abernathy and JoAnn Sciarrino. The faculty letter ended with a call to action — stating the University must offer Hannah-Jones a tenured position.

The same day, the UNC undergraduate executive branch issued its own statement: “A Heartfelt Letter to Renowned Journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones from UNC Student Leaders and Advocates.”

The students expressed their disappointment in the University’s decision to deny Hannah-Jones tenure. They said they cannot stand by the University while it undercuts the voices of people of color in academia. 

“We respect your work and your contribution to this country’s history too much for you or your scholarship to be the constant target of disrespect here at Carolina, be it from our leaders in South Building, the Board of Trustees or Board of Governors,” they wrote. 

Associate journalism professor Deb Aikat said the Board of Trustees’ overreach reflects a threat to the erosion of academic freedom at the University.

“I respectfully feel, as a journalism school committed to shaping future journalists, we have a good-faith right to hire people who can effectively empower our students to learn from renowned journalists such as Nikole Hannah-Jones,” Aikat said.

During a media advisory on May 20, Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz and Board of Trustees Chairperson Richard Stevens elaborated on the tenure decision.

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Stevens said Charles Duckett, the University Affairs Committee chairperson, asked Provost Bob Blouin to postpone Hannah-Jones’ tenure decision in advance of the Board of Trustees Jan. 21 meeting, due to her nontraditional academic background and so that they would have more time to consider her qualifications.

“That is not an unusual action for our committee," Stevens said. "Therefore, neither the Provost nor the Chancellor ever presented any recommendation on his appointment to the Board, nor did the Board take any action on this appointment.”

On May 21, the day after UNC Student Body President Lamar Richards was sworn in as a member of the Board of Trustees, Richards released a letter to Guskiewicz,  Blouin and Stevens, calling on Blouin to resubmit Hannah-Jones' tenure candidacy and Stevens to take up the recommendation as an official Board matter.

He wrote that if Hannah-Jones decides to not come to UNC as a result of not getting tenure, he will have lost faith in Guskiewicz and Blouin and their ability to lead the University.

Susan King, the dean of the journalism school, said in a statement despite the decision, faculty, students and staff are looking forward to having Hannah-Jones join them in the fall.

“While I am disappointed that the appointment is without tenure, there is no doubt in anyone’s mind that she will be a star faculty member,” she said. “I am more than delighted that she will be here at UNC, teaching our next generation of journalists, working with our graduate students and sharing her perspective with us all.”

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