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PW special report: After conservative criticism, UNC backs down from offering acclaimed journalist tenured position

In her career, Nikole Hannah-Jones, who is Black, has been awarded the Pulitzer Prize and a MacArthur Fellowship “Genius Grant.” But despite support from the UNC-Chapel Hill chancellor and faculty, she won’t be getting a tenure-track teaching position at her alma mater. [1]
Nikole Hannah-Jones (Bell Tower photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

Journalism school will instead offer Nikole Hannah-Jones a fixed five-year contract

In her career in journalism, Nikole Hannah-Jones has been awarded the Pulitzer Prize and a MacArthur Fellowship [2] “Genius Grant.” But despite support from the UNC-Chapel Hill chancellor and faculty, she won’t be getting a tenured teaching position at her alma mater. At least not yet.

As Policy Watch reported last week, UNC-Chapel Hill’s Hussman School of Journalism and Media pursued Hannah-Jones for its Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism, a tenured professorship. But following political pressure from conservatives [3] who object to her work on “The 1619 Project” [4] for The New York Times Magazine, the school changed its plan to offer her tenure — which amounts to a career-long appointment. Instead, she will start July 1 for a fixed five-year term as Professor of the Practice, with the option of being reviewed for tenure at the end of that time period.

“It’s disappointing, it’s not what we wanted and I am afraid it will have a chilling effect,” said Susan King, dean of UNC Hussman.

“The 1619 Project” is a long-form journalism undertaking that, as the Pulitzer Center put it, “challenges us to reframe U.S. history by marking the year when the first enslaved Africans arrived on Virginia soil as our nation’s foundational date.” Hannah-Jones, who is Black, conceived of the project and was among multiple staff writers, photographers and editors who put it together.

The project sought to spur a reexamination of how America teaches and celebrates its own history. It caused debate among academics, journalists, even within The New York Times itself. Criticisms of its accuracy by some prominent historians led to edits and clarifications, but Hannah-Jones and the Times stand by the project, the introductory essay to which won her the 2020 Pulitzer for commentary.

Last summer, Hannah-Jones went through the rigorous tenure process at UNC, King said. Hannah-Jones submitted a package King said was as well reviewed as any King had ever seen. Hannah-Jones had enthusiastic support from faculty and the tenure committee, with the process going smoothly every step of the way — until it reached the UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees.

The board reviews and approves tenure applications. It chose not to take action on approving Hannah-Jones’s tenure.

“I’m not sure why and I’m not sure if that’s ever happened before,” King said.

[5]
Susan King, dean of UNC Hussman School of Journalism

UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz stood up for Hannah-Jones before the board, King said, telling the members she was such a strong candidate that he was willing to bring her on in a fixed-term position with the opportunity to be approved for tenure after five years.

That’s a departure from the school’s usual practice. Knight Chairs, sponsored by the Knight Foundation [6], are important and influential journalists who bring their expertise to the classroom at some of the nation’s most respected universities. While continuing their work in journalism, Knight Chairs offer students the perspective they’ve gained through their experience in the industry.

Not all Knight Chair professors are tenured. But since UNC began working with the foundation in the early 1980’s, all of those teaching at the flagship Chapel Hill campus have been. Fixed-term positions, like the one now being offered to Hannah-Jones, do not need board approval.

“It was a work-around,” a UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees member told Policy Watch this week.

The board member, who had direct knowledge of the board’s conversations about Hannah-Jones, asked not to be identified so that they could discuss a confidential personnel process. “It’s maybe not a solution that is going to please everyone. Maybe it won’t please anyone. But if this was going to happen, this was the way to get it done.”

The board member had one word for the roadblock to Hannah-Jones gaining tenure.

“Politics,” the board member said.

“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.”

A political play

As Policy Watch previously reported [3], conservative groups with direct ties to the Republican-dominated UNC Board of Governors have been highly critical of Hannah-Jones’s work and the idea of her teaching at UNC-Chapel Hill.

Last week, a columnist for the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal [7] (formerly known as the Pope Center for Higher Education) wrote that UNC-Chapel Hill’s board of trustees must prevent Hannah-Jones’s hiring. If they were not willing to do so, the column said, the UNC Board of Governors should amend system policies to require every faculty hire to be vetted by each school’s board of trustees.

The column laid out the playbook that many powerful conservative interests in the state would like to follow, the trustee said.

“That is the argument we’ve been hearing and that is what some people on the board of governors are expecting, I can tell you that,” said the trustee. “There is already a lot of pressure about oversight from the Board of Governors of trustees at the various schools that are not doing what they believe we should be doing, that are making any decisions they disagree with, really.”

The Board of Governors has decided not to reappoint certain trustees they felt were not on the right ideological page, the trustee said, and have even engineered the ouster of chancellors with whom they disagreed. They have defunded academic centers and discontinued programs with which they were at political odds. Trustees across the system know that track record when they’re making these kinds of decisions, the trustee said.

“This is a high profile hiring decision and the last thing anyone should want is us going to the Board of Governors with this and they disagree,” the trustee said. “That is not going to be good for anybody. That is when negative things are going to happen.”

A second trustee, also requesting not to be identified, confirmed the political environment made granting Hannah-Jones tenure difficult, if not impossible.

“There was some discussion about ‘She is not from a teaching background, she is not from academia, so how can she just get a tenured position?’” the trustee said. “But if you look at the previous Knight Chairs, if you look at Penny Abernathy [8] for instance, these are people who come from the world of journalism. That’s the idea. That’s what the program is and it’s always been that way. So that argument doesn’t really hold water.”

A fraught time

The compromise solution of bringing Hannah-Jones on in a fixed-term position is not ideal, King said. But it was better than losing her altogether.

“She represents the best of our alumni and the best of the business,” King said. “I don’t want to get into a food fight. I want to make sure that our students have the opportunity to have someone of her caliber here and to learn from her. I think our faculty do as well. I realize this is a fraught era in the state. When I heard that the chancellor and the provost wanted to move to this, it was better than having a battle royale about the theory of academic freedom.”

Hannah-Jones was on the school’s radar as a potential faculty member before the publication of “The 1619 Project,” King said. But the project is part of Hannah-Jones’s long career of reporting powerfully on race.

“Our job is to expose our students to the great issues of our time,” King said. “This is a fraught time and a time of racial reckoning.”

Hannah-Jones’s part in that reckoning, in the form of “The 1619 Project,” has drawn national conservative ire.

Journalism and academia have never been without conflict and controversy, King said. That shouldn’t lead the governing boards of the university and the university system to shy away from esteemed journalists like Hannah-Jones, who got her master’s degree at UNC Hussman in 2003 and can bring valuable knowledge and experience to her alma mater.

“I think the board has to think about what the reputation will be in terms of the larger community of our peers, in terms of attracting great scholars,” King said.

With the board of trustees making it clear they are willing to disregard tenure recommendations, future Knight Chair positions might need to be advertised as fixed-term positions. That may hurt the ability to attract the best candidates, King said, and this episode could signal to potential recruits that the hiring process is politically fraught.

“Will it be a chilling effect? Will it hurt the reputation of UNC?” King said. “We’re nationally acclaimed now. That’s what I’m worried about.”

Faculty members are also worried.

[9]
Mimi Chapman UNC-Chapel Hill faculty chairperson

“If the BOT doesn’t take that recommendation, they are essentially disregarding almost a month’s worth of work time of faculty consideration to the issue,” said Mimi Chapman UNC-Chapel Hill’s faculty chairperson. “So that feels very demoralizing.”

It is within the BOT’s powers to deny tenure, Chapman said. But that power should only be exercised in extraordinary situations, such as when the professor has committed a crime.

Though Chapman said she is confident in Hannah-Jones’s ability to navigate this process, she is worried about what the trustees’ decision means for the relationship between faculty and administration.

“When I think about this issue, I am thinking about the implications of it beyond the current circumstance and the person in question,” she said. “There are principles of shared governance that come into question when the BOT elects not to follow a faculty recommendation regarding tenure.”

Deb Aikat, an associate professor at UNC’s Hussman school, said this episode sets a terrible precedent. “In academia, in the tenure system, it is one of the few domains where, in the spirit of academic freedom, people do not have to risk their jobs to speak truth to power,” Aikat said.

If a political litmus test for tenure is normalized, Aikat said, existing faculty may be less likely to pursue it and high quality candidates from outside academia will be less attracted to devalued positions. Deans and chairs of departments could also be hesitant to pursue candidates, Aikat said. There is always a danger of attracting unwanted attention from political quarters in the state, he said, including from a board of governors and legislature who might more closely scrutinize departments they find politically troubling.

King said she’s not worried about criticism of her department or of her job as dean.

“I have no problem with people looking at what we do,” King said. “I think they’d be incredibly proud of what they see the young people of North Carolina doing – the jobs they’re getting, the caliber of journalism they’re producing.”

“As for me,” King said. “I’m a woman who’s the first woman in every newsroom, I’ve spent 20 years in Washington, covered the White House, worked in the highest levels of government. I don’t shy away from a fight either. I’m proud of where we are and what we do and I’ll tell anybody that.”

[10]
Lamar Richards, UNC-Chapel Hill student body president

Lamar Richards, UNC-Chapel Hill student body president, will be sworn in this week as the student representative on the board of trustees. He said he couldn’t speak directly to the personnel matter and wasn’t a part of previous discussions, but doesn’t believe Hannah-Jones’s work is in any way at odds with “the spirit of the university.”

“I’ve heard people say that she shouldn’t work here, that they disagree with her beliefs, that they disagree with what she has to say,” Richards said. “But I believe, and the chancellor I believe has said and supports this publicly, that our university is a place for the free flow of ideas, for different ideologies, for people who everyone might not agree with and whose work might not please everyone.”

Richards said he’s heard student concerns about Hannah-Jones’s treatment in the hiring process and intends to bring them to the board. “There needs to be a discussion about this whole process and I do intend to represent the student body in that discussion,” Richards said.

The UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees will hold committee meetings Wednesday and a full board meeting Thursday. Trustees said they expect Hannah-Jones’s position to be discussed.

UNC journalism student Kyle Ingram is a summer intern at NC Policy Watch.