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Nikole Hannah-Jones declines UNC's offer, will join Howard University instead


Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and MacArthur Fellow Nikole Hannah-Jones, poses for a portrait. Photo courtesy of John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

Nikole Hannah-Jones will not join the UNC faculty this fall, she announced Tuesday during an interview on “CBS This Morning."

Hannah-Jones said she declined UNC’s offer and will be the inaugural Knight Chair in Race and Journalism at Howard University instead.

"One of my few regrets in life is that I didn’t go to Howard as an undergraduate and I’ve long wanted to be a part of the Howard family," she said. "It’s just so clear that this is the right thing for me to do at this moment."

She said she's raised $15 million in resources to help build up investigative reporting and journalism at Howard and other historically Black colleges, with a goal to raise $25 million — the same amount Walter Hussman donated to the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media.

The announcement comes after the Board of Trustees voted 9-4 to approve her tenure application during a special meeting last week, following months of activism from students, faculty and other community members.

Hannah-Jones was initially offered a five-year, fixed-term contract as the Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism, with the option to be reviewed for tenure at the end. The previous two Knight Chairs at UNC — both white — received tenure upon hiring.

Hannah-Jones said it was clear that her tenure application was not taken up because of political opposition and discriminatory views against her viewpoints, as well as her race and gender, from conservatives on the Board and megadonor Walter Hussman.

Her background, including her work at The New York Times, the awards she’s won and the recommendation letters from others in the field showed that she was qualified for the position, she said during the interview.

“It is clear that I was credentialed enough to teach 18-year-olds how to do journalism at the University of North Carolina,” she said. “So, I don't think anyone can say that there was any other reason other than, political appointees did not like the nature of my work, and that is illegal discrimination.”

To this day, Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz, Provost Bob Blouin and the Board have not told her why her tenure application had not been taken up in November or January, she said.

She also said that despite the trustees saying in public statements they needed more information about her credentials in order to offer her tenure, they voted to approve her application Wednesday with the same information they had in November.

“Every person who comes up for tenure should be judged by the quality of their work, by how they went through the tenure process,” Hannah-Jones said. “Again it has to be made clear: I went through the official tenure process, and my peers in academia said I was deserving of tenure. These Board members are political appointees who decided that I wasn’t.”

The Committee on Appointments, Promotions and Tenure, which consists of tenured professors at the University, resubmitted the tenure offer to the Board at the end of May. Hannah-Jones’ legal team gave UNC until June 4 to offer her a tenured position or face a federal lawsuit.

The Board did not meet again by the deadline.

“We look forward to continued dialogue with her counsel,” Joel Curran, vice chancellor for communications, said in a statement on June 4 — the only information the University would share at the time.

On June 23, Student Body President Lamar Richards, the lone student on the Board, submitted a formal meeting request petitioning for a special called meeting by or on June 30 to discuss and take formal action on Hannah-Jones' case. A special meeting had to be called within 10 days, according to the Board's by-laws, as at least five other trustees joined Richards and also submitted a formal written request.

The Board held a special meeting Wednesday, and after deliberating in a closed session for almost three hours, held a formal vote and approved Hannah-Jones’ tenure application.

“To be denied it and to only have that vote occur on the last possible day, at the last possible moment, after threat of legal action, after weeks of protest, after it became a national scandal, it’s just not something I want anymore,” Hannah-Jones said.

She said she told Hussman Dean Susan King her decision before she made the announcement Tuesday and called King a tremendous advocate for her and one of the few leaders who has shown integrity during this process.

In response to Hannah-Jones' decision, King said in a statement that she is disappointed that Hannah-Jones will not be joining the school, but she's aware that it has been a long six months for her and for UNC students.

"This new opportunity to join Howard University as a Knight Chair offers her the chance to invest in students and great journalism," King said in the statement. "This is what we would want for her and the next generation of journalists. To also be able to move into a new Knight Chair means this great journalism foundation has made an even stronger investment in the future of our news industry and all because of Hannah-Jones and the issues raised by her tenure case."

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King said she wishes Hannah-Jones success.

"(We) hope that UNC can learn from this long tenure drama about how we must change as a community of scholars in order to grow as a campus that lives by its stated values of being a diverse and welcoming place for all," she said.

Hannah-Jones also told members of the Carolina Black Caucus, and she traveled to North Carolina this weekend to tell a group of student protesters her decision and that she was grateful for them and appalled at the way they were treated at Wednesday’s meeting.

She did not feel the need to tell Guskiewicz and Blouin, she said, because she had not heard from them.

Hannah-Jones said she has been thoughtful about her decision to go to a historically Black college, and she’s spent her entire life — since she started to be bused into white schools in second grade — proving that she belongs in elite white spaces.

“I got a lot of clarity through what happened with the University of North Carolina," she said. "I decided I didn’t want to do that anymore, that Black professionals should feel free, and actually perhaps an obligation, to go to our own institutions and bring our talents and resources to our own institutions and help to build them up as well."

She initially wanted to join the UNC faculty to give back to the place that has given her so much, she said, noting that the University inducted her into the North Carolina Media Hall of Fame this year and that the organization she founded, the Ida B. Wells Society for Investigative Reporting, is housed there.

“It’s been extremely difficult,” she said. “People see me as some type of symbol of things, either they love or hate, but I’m a human being. I didn’t ask for this ... I was so excited to have the opportunity to engage with students the way that my professors engaged with me. This has been one of the most difficult periods of my life, which is why I have been really silent about it.”

Hannah-Jones released a statement Tuesday, writing that she has loved UNC since she watched the basketball team on TV as a child and cried from joy when she was accepted to the master's program at the journalism school 20 years ago. She said she was honored when King first raised the idea of her teaching at the school a few years ago.

But she said she couldn't imagine herself working at and advancing a school named for a man who used his wealth to influence the school's hires and ideology and ignored her journalism experience and credentials because he believed a project centered around Black Americans disparaged white Americans.

All she wanted was to be judged by her credentials and treated fairly and equally, she said, writing that she did not come from a wealthy family and had to work her way up.

"At age 27, when a certain wealthy donor was inheriting the publishing gig from his family paper, I was interning at the News & Observer while working a second job as a mattress salesperson to make ends meet," Hannah-Jones said in the statement.

She also expressed gratitude to the people who have spoken up and fought back over the last few weeks, including King, the journalism school faculty and the students who fought to hold the Board accountable. 

Faculty from the Hussman School published a statement following Hannah-Jones’ interview Tuesday, writing that they support her choice and are disappointed but not surprised.

“The appalling treatment of one of our nation’s most-decorated journalists by her own alma mater was humiliating, inappropriate, and unjust,” they wrote. “We will be frank: it was racist.”

As of 9:55 a.m., the statement had been signed by over 30 faculty members.


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