After months of activism from students, faculty and other community members, the UNC Board of Trustees voted to approve Nikole Hannah-Jones' tenure application Wednesday. But many students feel there should not have been a debate in the first place.
Hannah-Jones, a Pulitzer Prize winner and MacArthur Genius Grant recipient, was initially offered a five-year, fixed-term contract as the Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism — the previous two Knight Chairs at UNC received tenure upon hiring. Many feel Hannah-Jones is overqualified for the position and think she deserved tenure from the start.
Jarrah Faye, a junior double majoring in African, African American and diaspora studies and sociology, said she felt the Board of Trustees’ vote was the bare minimum.
“I really don't feel anything,” she said. “This wasn't something that I should have had to go back and forth to events to protest. This woman is a Pulitzer Prize winner. Her tenure should not have been in question.”
Residence Hall Association President Elliana Alexander said she was glad that Hannah-Jones received tenure, but felt the lengthy process showed that UNC has a long way to go in terms of racial equity.
Alexander said it should not have taken countless statements across University departments, demonstrations and protests for the Board to offer her tenure.
Austin Geer, a junior biochemistry and neuroscience double major, said he’s excited that Hannah-Jones was offered tenure, but feels the decision should have been made months ago.
“She definitely deserved it,” he said. “There should have been no question.”
During Wednesday's meeting, student demonstrators were forcibly removed by police when the Board went into closed session. Julia Clark, vice president of the Black Student Movement, said she was punched in the face by an officer during the incident.
Alexander said the situation demonstrates how disconnected the Board is from the UNC community.
“Students shouldn't be caught in the crossfire, having to put their physical bodies on the line and be punched by police officers for the right thing to be done,” she said.
Faye said if the Board had given Hannah-Jones tenure in the first place, she wouldn’t have had to watch her friends be punched and shoved by the police.
Geer said that if Student Body President Lamar Richards hadn’t called for the special meeting, the Board would have pushed the situation back indefinitely.
Faye said it was the Black student activists who pushed for Hannah-Jones’ tenure case to be reconsidered.
“It was really the Black student activists who sacrificed time, their jobs and their schoolwork, to protest for Nikole Hannah-Jones and the overall Black experience at UNC,” she said.
Going forward, Alexander said it is important the University has a genuine reckoning with its history with race and racism.
Geer said the University needs to start listening to Black and marginalized student voices and take action to address their concerns to make the University a more comfortable space. He said it feels like the University hears what they say but doesn’t make an effort to actively listen.
Hannah-Jones’ case was just a starting point for the broader work that needs to be done at UNC, Alexander said.
“This issue is not a standalone issue,” she said. “It's really reflective of the systemic inequity that flows through UNC that has never truly been addressed.”
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