Academics, Writers, Athletes Stand By '1619 Project' Founder Who Still Isn't Tenured

The University of North Carolina's failure to offer tenure to Nikole Hannah-Jones upon her appointment is shameful, several public figures wrote.

More than 250 public figures and other advocates have signed a letter in support of Nikole Hannah-Jones, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and creator of “The 1619 Project” who has yet to be offered tenure at the University of North Carolina’s Hussman School of Journalism.

The letter was published Tuesday in The Root, a site focused on Black news and culture, and signed by numerous well-known academics, writers, athletes and other public figures, including political activist Angela Davis, author Ta-Nehisi Coates, director Ava DuVernay and former NBA star Dwyane Wade.

The letter accuses UNC of bowing to pressure from conservatives opposed to “The 1619 Project,” an effort Hannah-Jones helmed at The New York Times Magazine to reshape the telling and teaching of American history and examine the consequences of enslaving Black people on U.S. soil.

We, the undersigned, believe this country stands at a crucial moment that will define the democratic expression and exchange of ideas for our own and future generations. State institutions across the country are attempting to ban frank and rigorous conversation about our history in the classroom. Few single works have been threatened with more restrictions than the 1619 Project, a landmark exploration of America’s deep roots in enslavement. And now, the 1619 Project’s founder, Nikole Hannah-Jones, has had her appointment as the Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill with tenure blocked by its Board of Trustees.

You can read the entire letter here.

Nikole Hannah-Jones speaks during the 137th Commencement at Morehouse College on May 16.
Nikole Hannah-Jones speaks during the 137th Commencement at Morehouse College on May 16.
Marcus Ingram via Getty Images

UNC announced last month that Hannah-Jones would be joining the university as the Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism in July. Her application for tenure, which would grant her permanent employment at the university, was well-reviewed by other faculty and the tenure board, but the UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees decided not to take action on it.

It was the first time the board at UNC’s flagship campus did not immediately offer tenure to a Knight Chair, which is one of the most prestigious positions anyone can hold at a journalism school. Hannah-Jones was instead given a five-year appointment at the university, stunning other faculty members.

One of the trustees, speaking anonymously to NC Policy Watch last week, admitted the board kowtowed under political pressure.

“This is a very political thing,” the trustee said. “The university and the board of trustees and the Board of Governors and the legislature have all been getting pressure since this thing was first announced last month. There have been people writing letters and making calls, for and against. But I will leave it to you which is carrying more weight.”

Tuesday’s letter notes how pointed Republican lawmakers’ backlash to “The 1619 Project” has been:

Proposed bills such as South Dakota’s vague “act to prohibit the use of curricular materials that promote racial divisiveness” quickly appeared, but Arkansas’ HB1231 is more literally named, “To Prohibit the Use of Public School Funds to Teach the 1619 Project.” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell singled out the 1619 Project in a scathing letter condemning the Biden administration’s proposal to teach about racism and slavery’s legacy in the nation’s public schools.

Hannah-Jones spoke out against efforts to censor her project earlier this month, saying her opponents are “trying to prohibit the teaching of ideas they don’t like” while claiming they’re simply trying to promote pride in American history.

In addition to Tuesday’s letter, 40 members of the Hussman School’s faculty and more than 50 from UNC’s other schools released a statement calling the board’s decision “concerning” and “disheartening.” The Society for Professional Journalists has also urged UNC to grant tenure to Hannah-Jones.

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