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"Put that listening into action," Campus impact of the Hannah-Jones' settlement

Nikole Hannah-Jones is an investigative reporter covering racial injustice for The New York Times Magazine and the creator of "The 1619 Project," which marked the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first ship carrying enslaved Africans to America. Photo courtesy of John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

Over a year following the UNC Board of Trustees’ initial failure to grant Nikole Hannah-Jones a tenured position, a settlement was reached between the University and the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist. 

Three campus initiatives were included in the settlement to extend action of the Carolina Next: Innovations for Public Good plan. 

NAACP Legal Defense Fund President and Director-Counsel Janai S. Nelson said in a statement that the settlement aims to support the ongoing work toward addressing racial inequity at the University.

"Ms. Hannah-Jones is grateful to have this matter behind her, and she 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,” Nelson said.

The settlement 

In the settlement — released on July 15 — the University agreed to pay Hannah-Jones $74,999.99 to resolve legal issues related to the BOT's mishandling of her tenure appointment. If UNC pays less than $75,000 to settle potential litigation, the chancellor is authorized to approve the settlement, according to the UNC Policy Manual.

The three obligations listed in the settlement for Hannah-Jones are:

  • An agreement that Hannah-Jones' will follow the terms of releases and assurances
  • Establishment of Hannah-Jones' responsibility for any tax liability or consequences that might come from UNC’s obligations listed in the settlement 
  • An understanding that Hannah-Jones will not apply for a position at the University through Jan. 1, 2028

Along with the $74,999.99 the University is to pay Hannah-Jones, UNC’s obligations include focusing on three key initiatives to increase campus inclusivity. 

The initiatives are: 

  • Training 20 faculty and staff members as search and selection process advisers through the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion
  • Posting a position for a trauma-informed therapist in the Multicultural Health Program by July 31 
  • Reserving money each fiscal year for events sponsored by the Carolina Black Caucus 

Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion 

In order to increase the inclusivity of UNC’s hiring process, the 20 trained faculty and staff members will “play an active role” in the hiring process of new staff members, developing positions and integrating new employees into the University, according to the settlement.    

Throughout the search process for finding and hiring new employees, there will be a focus on selecting diverse candidates with diverse identities, Leah Cox, the vice provost for equity and inclusion and chief diversity officer, said.

“Obviously, there must have been a feeling in the room that the search for Nikole Hannah-Jones was not inclusive — it was not without bias and all those things,” she said. “And so I think that that was probably something that maybe she insisted upon, is training across the institution how to do inclusive searches.”

Along with diversifying the hiring process, trained faculty and staff should also be aware of how to recognize issues surrounding diversity in all departments, in all conversations.  

“We want to expand this across the institution so that the Nikole (Hannah-Jones') of the world will be able to say, ‘Well, it was an inclusive process’,” Cox said. 

Multicultural Health Program 

The Multicultural Health Program is a sector of UNC’s Counseling and Psychological Services that serves the mental health needs of the University’s students of color. The MCHP works to break the mental health stigma in the community through offering both individual and group therapy, as well as community outreach Erinn Scott, assistant director for the MCHP, said. 

A job posting for a trauma-informed therapist within the MCHP was posted before the settlement was released, but Scott hopes that it will increase the number of applicants who are passionate about being a part of the University’s change.                                                                                                                                                                     

“We're starting to also see a body of literature and research that's really supporting this idea of race-based trauma," Scott said. “Over time, if people are continually confronted with overwhelming, scary, both overt and covert racism, microaggressions, systemic barriers — it can really wear on both their physical, mental and sort of spiritual health.”

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The MCHP is looking to hire an individual who is not only knowledgeable on race-based trauma, but is also knowledgeable of UNC’s history with race and what the University’s community of color has faced, Scott said. 

“I think it's important to have a race-related, trauma-focused therapist who, even if they're not really familiar, but is interested in learning about how both current race-related traumas, but also historical pieces may impact our students of colors’ experience here at Carolina's campus,” she said. 

There is not yet a specific date for when the therapist will be hired, but Scott is hoping to add the addition to the MCHP team during the fall semester. 

Carolina Black Caucus

The Carolina Black Caucus will receive $5,000 each fiscal year through June 30, 2025 through the Provost’s Office. This money can be used for meetings, conferences and other events upon approval of Cox. 

After Hannah-Jones’ tenure was denied in 2021, she engaged in a listening session over the summer with the Caucus, and asked the organization for a list of things that they would like to see change at the University. 

The Caucus wasn’t sure what the list would be used for, chairperson Jaci Field said, but the Caucus later understood when they saw that the settlement included some of the items they discussed. 

“It's nice to be heard, and not only to be heard, but to put that listening into action,” she said. “And that means more than a performative plan sometimes, and I just love the way it continues to challenge our leadership to really put Carolina Next into action.”

The goal of the Caucus is to engage, educate and create a community for Black UNC staff and faculty members, and the money from the settlement will be used to focus on all three of those things, Field said. A date has not yet been set as to when the first payment will be made. 

Field commends the chancellor’s office, the Board of Governors and the BOT for continuing efforts to reach a settlement, and coming to an agreement after many months. 

“I think that there's great advocates on both of those bodies, and they could have let it go and not continue to try to do the right thing,” she said. “But I think whenever anybody has a misstep, the only way to make those changes is to really take an honest look and be willing to change.” 

@livvreilly |