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UNC and Nikole Hannah-Jones reach settlement over last year's tenure controversy


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

The University has reached an agreement with Nikole Hannah-Jones to resolve legal matters related to her application for a tenured position in the Hussman School of Journalism and Media, according to UNC Media Relations. 

The settlement will end any course of legal action Hannah-Jones was considering after the University's initial failure to offer her tenure in spring 2021

“We believe this settlement is an important element of UNC’s ongoing and much-needed work to address racial inequity at the University, and that it provides Ms. Hannah-Jones with the closure necessary to put this incident behind her," NAACP Legal Defense Fund President and Director-Counsel Janai Nelson said in a public statement. 

About the tenure case

After hiring Hannah-Jones as UNC's Knight Chairperson in Race and Investigative Journalism last year, the BOT initially refused to vote on Hannah-Jones' tenure candidacy. The Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist was instead offered a fixed-term contract, with the option to be reviewed for tenure.

Many in the Chapel Hill community denounced the BOT decision and demanded that the board vote to grant her tenure. 

The BOT later voted 9-4 to grant Hannah-Jones tenure in summer 2021, but she chose to take a position at Howard University — where she was offered tenure as the inaugural Knight Chair in Race and Journalism. 

About the settlement

Hannah-Jones was represented by the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Levy Ratner, P.C. and Furgeson Chambers & Sumter, P.A.

On Saturday, Nelson said that the legal team reached a settlement with the University on behalf of their client Hannah-Jones. Nelson said that Hannah-Jones previously filed a complaint with and was issued a right to sue letter by the EEOC. 

"(Hannah-Jones) looks forward to continuing her professional work committed to using the power of investigative journalism to expose the truth about the manifestations of racism in our society and training the next generation of aspiring journalists to do the same at her academic home of Howard University,” Nelson said in a public statement.

Nelson also said that the settlement is victory for free expression, a right that is often infringed or ignored when claimed by Black people and people from other marginalized groups.

UNC Board of Trustee's Chairperson David Boliek told The News & Observer that the settlement was for less than $75,000.

“The steps taken to resolve the lingering potential legal action posed by Ms. Hannah-Jones will hopefully help to close this chapter and give the University the space to focus on moving forward,” Boliek in an email statement via UNC Media Relations.

Deb Aikat, a faculty member at the journalism school, said that the chancellor has the authority to negotiate terms of a settlement of less than $75,000 without seeking approval from the UNC Board of Governors, which oversees the state university system.

“We appreciate that the settlement seeks to resolve the potential legal action by Ms. Nikole Hannah-Jones, who is among UNC-Chapel Hill’s distinguished graduates," Aikat said in an email statement. "Truth be told, the settlement raises many unanswered questions." 

He said that, in the spirit of transparency, UNC leaders should more specifically enunciate details about the amount and aspirations of the settlement agreement. The Chapel Hill community should be able to contribute to the success of the University's diversity initiatives, he said.

Associate Vice Chancellor of University Communications Beth Keith said that the settlement is an important step forward as UNC focuses on the future. 

"As a part of the agreement, the University will accelerate its investment in crucial initiatives in Carolina Next, its strategic plan, to further that ongoing work," Keith said in a statement via UNC Media Relations.

Settlement provisions

According to the LDF's statement, the settlement required three key provisions for UNC: an inclusive search process, mental health counseling and reserved funds in the provost's office. 

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First, it requires 20 UNC faculty and staff to be trained through the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion as search and selection advisers. These advisers will be involved in every aspect of future UNC hires. 

Regarding mental health counseling, the UNC Counseling and Psychological Services Multicultural Health Program must post a position for an additional trauma-informed therapist by July 31 and hire a qualified candidate for this position.

Finally, $5,000 must be reserved each fiscal year through June 30, 2025 — to be available through the provost's office — to help pay for meetings and events sponsored by the Carolina Black Caucus. 

Erin Siegal McIntyre, a faculty member of the journalism school, said the settlement agreement is heartening as it will help to "respect and retain Black excellence" at the University. 

"At UNC, we have had and still have a lot of work to do," Siegal McIntyre said in an email statement. "Yet we know that the arc of the moral universe is long — and that arc has been bending since this country was founded. Every member of the UNC community is responsible for improving this institution. It's an honor to try to do so."


Editor's note: Erin Siegal McIntyre is a member of The DTH Media Corp. Board of Directors.