In a letter sent to school administrators, more than 30 faculty members from the chemistry department at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill said the school’s refusal to grant Pulitzer-winning journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones tenure is injuring the university and risks doing more damage.
Hannah-Jones, a highly regarded journalist who specializes in education reporting, is also the creator of The New York Times’ “1619 Project,” which examines the consequences of slavery in the U.S. and the role African Americans have played in the country’s prosperity. Since its publication in 2019, white Republicans have tried to censor the project in order to hide its coverage of anti-Black racism.
In the letter to UNC Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz, faculty from the university’s chemistry department said Lisa Jones, a world-renowned chemist who withdrew her candidacy for a job at UNC over the school’s refusal to grant Hannah-Jones tenure, is evidence that the school’s stance is harming its reputation and “is antithetical to everything we value and represent.”
In April, UNC announced Hannah-Jones as its latest Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism ― a vaunted position at the university ― yet the school’s board of trustees has refused to consider her tenure request since January.
Jones, who holds a doctorate in chemistry and is currently teaching at the University of Maryland, said she couldn’t look past UNC’s treatment of Hannah-Jones when considering whether to join its faculty.
“The news this week that Nikole Hannah-Jones was denied tenure was very disheartening,” Jones, who is Black, said in the letter. “It does not seem in line with a school that says it is interested in diversity. Although I know this decision may not reflect the view of the school’s faculty, I will say that I cannot see myself accepting a position at a university where this decision stands. I appreciate all of the effort you have put into trying to recruit me but for me this is hard to overlook.”
Faculty from UNC’s chemistry department said they’d been working over the past two years to recruit Jones.
“Her letter, withdrawing her candidacy to join our faculty, is a reflection of what our nation’s minority scholars will be saying about the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill as they search for job opportunities or consider if this University is the right fit,” they warned.
A recent report from The Assembly, a North Carolina-based news outlet, revealed the top donor to the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media, where Hannah-Jones received her master’s degree and currently works, privately urged Dean Susan King not to hire her. King has publicly supported Hannah-Jones’ request for tenure.
Walter Hussman, the school’s namesake who has previously appeared on television with right-wing conspiracy theorist Tucker Carlson, sent emails complaining that the “1619 Project” didn’t give enough credit to white southerners for ending racism.
“Long before Nikole Hannah-Jones won her Pulitzer Prize, courageous white southerners risking their lives standing up for the rights of blacks were winning Pulitzer prizes, too,” Hussman said in an email last September.
“I worry about the controversy of tying the UNC journalism school to the 1619 project,” he wrote in a December email.
Charles Duckett, who chairs the committee responsible for bringing tenure requests up for a vote, reportedly asked UNC provost Robert Blouin to postpone review of Hannah-Jones’ candidacy prior to a full board meeting where tenure candidates were reviewed in January, according to the chair of UNC’s Board of Trustees.
“In his communication to provost, trustee Duckett asked questions regarding the tenure candidacy of Nikole Hannah-Jones and suggested more time to postpone the review to consider those questions and her overall application,” the board chair, Richard Y. Stevens, said during a virtual press briefing last week.
“That is not an unusual action for our committee,” he claimed.
Hannah-Jones resubmitted her tenure application last Thursday. That same day, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund told UNC officials it would file a lawsuit on her behalf if the university didn’t offer her tenure by June 4, according to the website NC Policy Watch.
In a statement last Friday announcing she’d obtained legal support, Hannah-Jones said her fight for tenure is about America’s purported democratic principles.
“As a Black woman who has built a nearly two-decades long career in journalism, I believe Americans who research, study, and publish works that expose uncomfortable truths about the past and present manifestations of racism in our society should be able to follow these pursuits without risk to their civil and constitutional rights,” she said.
“I had no desire to bring turmoil or a political firestorm to the university that I love, but I am obligated to fight back against a wave of anti-democratic suppression that seeks to prohibit the free exchange of ideas, silence Black voices and chill free speech.”
On May 25, more than 250 academics, writers and other public figures jointly released a statement denouncing UNC’s board of trustees for its refusal to grant Hannah-Jones tenure and decrying “this rising tide of suppression and the threat to academic freedom that it embodies.”
More than 1,500 ― 1,619, to be exact ― UNC alumni and current students also issued a statement last week via a two-page ad spread in The News & Observer in Raleigh.
“Dismissing a list of merits that includes winning a Pulitzer Prize, Peabody Award and MacArthur Genius Grant is an attempt to penalize Nikole Hannah-Jones for her groundbreaking and unvarnished reporting of American history,” the statement said.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article referred to an ad in the Charlotte News and Observer. The ad was placed in The News & Observer in Raleigh, North Carolina.