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UPDATE: This article has been updated to include additional information on tenured faculty at the University.

The UNC Board of Trustees' decision to not take action on offering Nikole Hannah-Jones a tenured position sparked outrage in the UNC community. But what exactly does it mean to have tenure?

Here’s a comprehensive look at tenure — the definition, the process, the implications and why Hannah-Jones’ case is an unusual one.  

Defining tenure

The UNC Center for Faculty Excellence includes Merriam Webster's definition of tenure in its new faculty guide, which is "a status granted to a teacher after a trial period that gives protection from summary dismissal."

Seth Noar, the journalism and media representative on the Appointment, Promotion and Tenure Committee and a professor in the Hussman School of Journalism and Media, said tenured positions offer a lifetime appointment at the University, but also protect academic freedom.

Chairperson of the Faculty Mimi Chapman said professors at UNC typically fall into two categories: those who are on a tenure track and those who are fixed-term.

As of 2019, 1,384 UNC instructors were tenured and 425 were on the tenure track, while 1,906 were on fixed contracts, according to the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System.

Chapman said those on a tenure track are professors who either have tenure or who are working toward it, while fixed-term professors have a predetermined contract with the University. In recent years, universities have become more reliant on these fixed-term faculty — leaving fewer tenured positions available.

Within tenure positions at Hussman, there are two tracks that candidates usually follow. Francesca Dillman Carpentier, a tenured professor at the journalism school, defined the two tracks as research and professional.

Carpentier said the research track is what is most commonly associated with perceptions of the University and academia, with a “publish-or-perish” culture. The professional track has a number of required courses the candidate must teach per year. She said tenure is granted differently with different expectations for the two different tracks. 

Tenure process 

For professors on a tenure track, the process is long and involved. 

It usually takes five years, but Noar said this has started to change at UNC to allow flexibility. They are now focusing on “meet-the-mark criteria,” so if a candidate is ready before the five-year period is up, they can be put up for tenure earlier.

Chapman said the beginning of a typical tenure process starts with an assistant professor. Throughout those initial five years, their progress is reviewed by their department to make sure they are on the right track, Noar said.

At the end of the five years, the tenure candidate compiles a tenure dossier — a collection of their research during their time at UNC, Chapman said. The dossier includes examples of their work from over the years, including book chapters and articles.

Noar said that for the journalism school, the dossier includes three pillars: teaching, research or professional/creative activity and service.

Carpentier said if the candidate is on the professional track, the dean’s office sends the dossier to four external reviewers from peer universities or other well-known professional institutions, making sure there are no conflicts of interest.

“External reviewers write a letter to the dean providing their recommendation for whether the candidate qualifies for tenure based on our criteria,” she said. “And explaining how/why the candidate does or does not meet expectations.”

Additionally, the chairperson or dean of the department typically writes a letter in support of the candidate, Noar said.

The dossier and letters are then submitted for review. The process varies slightly by department, but because Hussman is its own school within the University, it has its own promotion and tenure committee that reviews tenure appointments.

Chapman said these committees are typically made up of tenured professors. The committee members will read the candidate's packet and vote on whether or not they want to advance the candidate to the next step.

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If the appointment passes the vote, it goes to the dean of the school. For the journalism school, this is Susan King. 

After the dean’s approval, the candidate’s file moves to the University level. The materials are sent to the Appointment, Promotion and Tenure Committee, on which Noar has served for a year. 

Noar said the APT committee doesn’t have its own set of guidelines for what a candidate should look like, but rather looks to make sure that the departments and schools are applying their own guidelines. 

If the tenure applicant passes this step, the dossier and letters move to the provost, who then sends them to the Board of Trustees to vote on.

Carpentier said when the candidate reaches the Board of Trustees — which governs the University system — it is technically out of the University.

The process takes months to complete, and often years of preparation.

Implications of tenure

But making it through this convoluted process comes with benefits. Noar said the job security that comes with a tenured position has implications beyond salary. 

Noar said when candidates are on tenure track, they are more likely to undertake projects that will be shorter-term and bring more reliable success. 

“Once you get tenure, then it’s wide open,” he said. “You can think about longer-term projects, taking risks, doing bigger things that might take years to get going.”

Another benefit of tenure is the academic freedom that it brings. Noar said tenured positions allow professors to study the topics they are passionate about without political interference. 

“In my mind, we want people at the University to be studying difficult topics, challenging topics, topics that some people think of as controversial,” he said. “We want people engaging with those topics — if not at the University, where, right?”

‘An unusual situation’

Hannah-Jones will enter UNC in a Knight Chair position. The Knight Foundation endows professorships for professional journalists across the United States with the goal of bringing industry experience to the classroom.

The Knight Chairs in Journalism released a statement to the UNC Board of Trustees on May 20, writing that they oppose the Board's decision and stand in solidarity with Hannah-Jones and the Hussman faculty.

"The fact that UNC’s trustees chose to withhold tenure from Hannah-Jones speaks volumes about the pettiness of those who would try to diminish her 20-year track record of award-winning journalism," the statement read.

The statement's signatories include 23 Knight Chairs from institutions such as Duke University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Northwestern University and Syracuse University.

Chapman said one goal of the Knight Chair position was to bring practicing journalists into tenured positions. 

“That is not a requirement at the Knight Foundation, but that’s how it’s always been done on this campus,” Chapman said. “So, you know (Hannah-Jones) is being considered really differently than her predecessors in the Knight Chair. It’s an unusual situation.”

One important aspect of the tenure process is that decisions are not determined by whether or not the committees agree with the candidate’s conclusions, Chapman said. She said competing viewpoints will exist — no matter the discipline or field. 

“You’re not voting on, or making a decision about whether someone’s point of view, or the conclusions of their scholarship or their body of work is correct,” she said. “People are evaluating whether you did what you did with integrity, and whether you did it following basic kinds of rules of scholarly investigation.” 

Chapman said the Chronicle of Higher Education published an article where other scholars criticized Hannah-Jones’ work, but still believed she should have received tenure.

“The idea that you could say no to someone’s tenure based on whether or not you happen to agree with a position that they’ve taken is not the purpose of tenure,” Chapman said. “The purpose is to say, this person’s ideas, approach and conclusions are worthy of continued support and the freedom to investigate ideas that might be controversial.”