Nikole Hannah-Jones rejects tenure offer at UNC for a job at Howard U

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Nikole Hannah-Jones will not be joining the faculty of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

She announced her decision Tuesday, nearly a week after the UNC Board of Trustees offered her a tenured position in one of the nation’s most closely watched tenure votes. The 9-to-4 vote followed a massive protest movement on her behalf. The board was first supposed to consider Hannah-Jones for tenure in November, but it did not. The trustees never rejected her, but their refusal to vote on her left her hanging on the outcome and whether they would even take up the case.

The board has treated Hannah-Jones’s tenure case differently than most other cases that come before it, as typically it rubber-stamps tenure for professors who, like Hannah-Jones, have strong recommendations from their peers and administrators. Hannah-Jones was to hold the Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism at North Carolina, and all Knight chairs there before her were granted tenure without delay. But unlike those who held the chair before she was offered the position, Hannah-Jones is Black.

She also announced on Tuesday that she would be joining the faculty (with tenure) at Howard University. And so too will the author and journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates.

Hannah-Jones released a long statement about her deep love for UNC, her alma mater -- and her frustration at how the university has treated her.

"I have loved the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill since I was a child watching Tar Heels basketball on television," she wrote. "Two decades ago, in 2001, I learned that not only had I been accepted into the master’s program at the journalism school at UNC, but that I had received a full-tuition Park Fellowship. I cried from joy. I could not believe how lucky I was to get the chance to learn journalism at a place I had so long revered."

She said that "UNC took a woman with ambition but no practical journalism training and provided the foundation for all that I would become. And through the years, Carolina has been so good to me; inviting me to give the journalism school’s commencement address in 2017; honoring me with the Young Alumni Award that same year and the Distinguished Alumna Award in 2019; and last year, inducting me into the N.C. Media Hall of Fame."

Hannah-Jones is best known as co-creator of The New York Times Magazine’s "1619 Project," which sought to recenter the contributions of Black Americans in U.S. history, dating back to 1619. A winner of a Pulitzer Prize, a MacArthur “genius” grant and other prizes, she was seen as a perfect candidate for the Knight chair at UNC.

So how did things go so wrong? At first, they didn’t.

Susan King, the journalism dean, recruited Hannah-Jones. (In the statement, Hannah-Jones praises King repeatedly.)

"Our country was undergoing a racial reckoning, and [King] talked about the moment we are in and how important it was for the upcoming generation of journalists to have the knowledge, training, historical understanding, and depth of reporting to cover the changing country and its challenges," wrote Hannah-Jones. "She told me that Carolina was undergoing a racial reckoning of its own, that its leadership was committed to real change, and that she felt I could play an important role in this effort."

And King directed her on the tenure process. "As part of the months-long tenure process, I had to write a teaching statement, a creative statement and a service statement. I had to teach a class while being observed by faculty. Dean King solicited letters to assess my portfolio of work and professional accomplishments from several academic experts in the field of journalism whom I did not personally know. I presented to the journalism faculty. Following these steps, my tenure was put to vote by all the full professors of the journalism school, who were overwhelmingly in support," recalled Hannah-Jones.

"My tenure package was then to be presented for a vote by the Board of Trustees in November so that I could start teaching at the university in January 2021," she said. "The day of the trustees meeting, we waited for word, but heard nothing. The next day, we learned that my tenure application had been pulled but received no explanation as to why. The same thing happened again in January. Both the university’s chancellor and its provost refused to fully explain why my tenure package had failed twice to come to a vote or exactly what transpired. The rest of this story has been well documented in the press."

Pressure Against the Hire

While Hannah-Jones did not detail "the rest of this story," she was referring to reports that Walter Hussman Jr., after whom UNC’s Hussman School of Journalism and Media is named, opposed Hannah-Jones’s appointment. Emails from Hussman to UNC chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz and at least one board member said, “I worry about the controversy of tying the UNC journalism school to the 1619 project … I find myself more in agreement with Pulitzer prize winning historians like James McPherson and Gordon Wood than I do Nikole Hannah-Jones.”

The board would have received the email before members decided to table her tenure vote.

"These last few weeks have been very dark. To be treated so shabbily by my alma mater, by a university that has given me so much and which I only sought to give back to, has been deeply painful," Hannah-Jones wrote in the statement.

"I cannot imagine working at and advancing a school named for a man who lobbied against me, who used his wealth to influence the hires and ideology of the journalism school, who ignored my 20 years of journalism experience, all of my credentials, all of my work, because he believed that a project that centered Black Americans equaled the denigration of white Americans," she wrote. "Nor can I work at an institution whose leadership permitted this conduct and has done nothing to disavow it. How could I believe I’d be able to exert academic freedom with the school’s largest donor so willing to disparage me publicly and attempt to pull the strings behind the scenes? Why would I want to teach at a university whose top leadership chose to remain silent, to refuse transparency, to fail to publicly advocate that I be treated like every other Knight Chair before me? Or for a university overseen by a board that would so callously put politics over what is best for the university that we all love? These times demand courage, and those who have held the most power in this situation have exhibited the least of it."

And she referenced her circumstances, comparing her life to Hussman’s.

"I do not come from a wealthy and connected family. I did not arrive at Carolina with the understanding that no matter how I performed, I would have a job and prominent position guaranteed. My dad drove a bus and my mom was a probation officer. I got into Carolina on my own merits. I scraped to secure internships at small papers like High Point Enterprise. I got my first job covering schools for the Chapel Hill News," she wrote. "At age 27, when a certain wealthy donor was inheriting the publishing gig from his family paper, I was interning at the News & Observer while working a second job as a mattress salesperson to make ends meet."

"I will be taking a position as the inaugural Knight Chair in Race and Reporting at Howard University, founded in 1867 to serve the formerly enslaved and their descendants," she said. "There, I will be creating a new initiative aimed at training aspiring journalists to cover the crisis of our democracy and bolstering journalism programs at historically Black colleges and universities across the country … In the storied tradition of the Black press, the Center for Journalism and Democracy will help produce journalists capable of accurately and urgently covering the perilous challenges of our democracy with a clarity, skepticism, rigor, and historical dexterity that is too often missing from today’s journalism."

While Hannah-Jones did not explicitly call UNC’s treatment of her racist, many others did.

Faculty members at UNC’s Hussman School released a statement called "Racism and Reactionary Politics Kept Nikole Hannah-Jones from Joining UNC."

The statement said, "While disappointed, we are not surprised. We support Ms. Hannah-Jones’s choice. The appalling treatment of one of our nation’s most-decorated journalists by her own alma mater was humiliating, inappropriate, and unjust. We will be frank: It was racist."

The statement also drew attention to the paucity of Black women in the faculty ranks at UNC.

"Although our school and university espouse the ideals of transparency, equity, inclusivity, and fairness, the proclamation of such lofty goals without accompanying action toward dismantling systemic racism precludes substantive progress. North Carolina’s state motto is ‘To be rather than to seem.’ And yet, Ms. Hannah-Jones would have been only the second Black woman to earn tenure in the School of Journalism and Media, a 70-year-old institution. The first earned tenure a mere three years ago. Ms. Hannah-Jones would have been the sole Black woman at the rank of full professor level in our school; at the university level, only 3.1 percent of tenured faculty are Black women."

King, the dean who tried to hire Hannah-Jones, said, "We wish her nothing but deep success and the hope that UNC can learn from this long tenure drama about how we must change as a community of scholars in order to grow as a campus that lives by its stated values of being a diverse and welcoming place for all."

UNC’s Response

While Hannah-Jones made her announcement early in the day, it wasn’t until after 4 p.m. that the University of North Carolina released a statement from Chancellor Kevin M. Guskiewicz.

"I am disappointed that Nikole Hannah-Jones will not be joining our campus community as a member of our faculty. In my conversations with Nikole, I have told her I appreciated her passion for Carolina and her desire to teach on our campus. While I regret she won’t be coming to Chapel Hill, the students, faculty and staff of Howard University will benefit from her knowledge and expertise. We wish her the best."

He added, "We must support and value every member of our community, and particularly our Black students, faculty and staff who, by sharing their experiences, have helped us understand their anger and frustration with this process and their experiences on our campus. I remain committed to recruiting and retaining the world-class faculty that our students deserve at Carolina. Members of my leadership team and I are actively engaged with student, faculty and staff leaders to continue working together toward a more inclusive and equitable campus living, learning and working environment where everyone knows they belong. I have heard from many passionate members of our community today and over the past year about the progress we have already made in building our community together. Yet, new challenges like this present opportunities for us to learn and act. We will act, as I know we are up to this challenge. I recognize there are still questions and a great deal of work ahead. I am absolutely committed to pressing on and partnering with all those who desire to make Carolina a more welcoming place where every member of our community can realize their full potential."

The statement did not address criticisms that the tenure process mistreated Hannah-Jones or treated her in racist ways.

UNC’s Loss, Howard’s Gain

UNC’s loss is a major gain for Howard.

To pay for Hannah-Jones and Coates, and the initiatives they will lead, the university raised $20 million from the Knight Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Ford Foundation, and an anonymous donor.

"At such a critical time for race relations in our country, it is vital that we understand the role of journalism in steering our national conversation and social progress. Not only must our newsrooms reflect the communities where they are reporting, but we need to infuse the profession with diverse talent," said Wayne A. I. Frederick, president of the university.

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