Faculty members at the University of North Carolina Hussman School of Journalism and Media have expressed their dismay that Nikole Hannah-Jones, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and creator of “The 1619 Project,” was not given a tenured position at the university.
Forty members of the Hussman School’s faculty released a statement on Medium on Wednesday, writing that they were “stunned at the failure to award” Hannah-Jones a tenured position. They called the decision “concerning” and “disheartening.” Their statement received over 50 additional signatures from professors and Ph.D. candidates at other UNC schools.
UNC announced last month that Hannah-Jones would be joining the school as the Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism in July. Karen Rundlet, the journalism director at the Knight Foundation, said in the announcement that “Knight Chairs are highly-respected news leaders who bring insights about journalism and support elevating it in the academy.”
But faculty members at the school are now questioning why the university withheld tenure upon Hannah-Jones’ appointment, noting that faculty at the journalism school had widely supported The New York Times Magazine reporter receiving a tenured position.
“This failure is especially disheartening because it occurred despite the support for Hannah-Jones’s appointment as a full professor with tenure by the Hussman Dean, Hussman faculty, and university,” the statement read.
The faculty also stated that the two Knight chairs who immediately preceded Hannah-Jones received tenure upon their appointment.
“The failure to offer Hannah-Jones tenure with her appointment as a Knight chair unfairly moves the goalposts and violates long-standing norms and established processes relating to tenure and promotion at UNC Chapel Hill,” the statement added.
Hannah-Jones — the co-founder of Ida B. Wells Society for Investigative Reporting, a trade organization dedicated to supporting journalists of color — notably helmed The New York Times Magazine’s “1619 Project.” The powerful package explores anti-Black racism and how the legacy of slavery plagues America today. Hannah-Jones’ commentary in her introductory essay for the project earned her the 2020 Pulitzer Prize.
UNC faculty members charged in their statement that Hannah-Jones’ tenure status was at least in part politically motivated: “The national politicization of universities, journalism, and the social sciences undermines the integrity of and academic freedom within the whole University of North Carolina system.”
“We demand explanations from the university’s leadership at all levels,” the statement read.
Instead of tenure, the university offered Hannah-Jones a five-year fixed-term contract. NC Policy Watch, a news outlet from the North Carolina Justice Center, published an article Wednesday with accusations from unnamed sources that members of the UNC Board Of Trustees, who have the authority to approve tenured appointments, acted politically.
A UNC spokesperson directed HuffPost to a recording of a Thursday virtual press briefing held by UNC Chancellor Kevin M. Guskiewicz and UNC Board of Trustees Chair Richard Y. Stevens. Both Guskiewicz and Stevens addressed the controversy surrounding Hannah-Jones’ tenure status.
Stevens denied that the board of trustees had taken any final “action” on Hannah-Jones’ tenure.
He said that the chair of the board of trustees university affairs committee, Charles Duckett, had asked UNC Provost Robert Blouin to postpone the review of Hannah-Jones’ candidacy prior to a board of trustees meeting where tenure candidates were reviewed this past January.
“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. That is not an unusual action for our committee,” Stevens said.
“Therefore, neither the provost, nor the chancellor, ever presented any recommendation on this appointment to the board, nor did the board take any action on this appointment,” he added. “We stress that.”
The UNC Board of Trustees consists of 13 members: “eight are elected by the UNC Board of Governors, four are appointed by the NC General Assembly, and the remaining member is the president of the student government, ex officio,” its website states.
The celebrated “1619 Project” has received criticism from some historians, and from conservative voices. The project incensed Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who demanded in a letter to Education Secretary Miguel Cardona earlier this month that taxpayer-supported programs not include school programs that teach information derived from “The 1619 Project.”
Susan King, the dean of UNC’s journalism school, said in a statement that she was disappointed that Hannah-Jones had not yet been offered tenure but said she will be a “star faculty member,” The Washington Post reported. King wrote in an email to faculty that the board of trustees was “worried about a non-academic entering the university with this designation,” according to the Post.
Stevens had addressed that question on Thursday, telling reporters that it was not unusual for members of a board or a chair of a committee to have questions or “clarifications” about candidates’ backgrounds — and “particularly candidates who don’t come from a traditional academic-type background.”
Hannah-Jones, who holds a master’s degree in journalism and mass communication from UNC, is a 2017 MacArthur Fellow (commonly referred to as a “genius grant” winner).
She did not immediately return a request for comment.
Hannah-Jones responded to the wide support she has since received on Wednesday by tweeting, “I’ve been staying off of here today, but just know I see you all and I am grateful.”
In another tweet on Thursday, Hannah-Jones wrote that she was “overwhelmed by all the support” she has received.
“It has truly fortified my spirit and my resolve,” she said. “You all know that I will [be] OK. But this fight is bigger than me, and I will try my best not to let you down.”
People on Twitter have continued to slam the university over Hannah-Jones’ tenure status: