By Cash Michaels –
Why did Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones reject UNC-Chapel Hill’s belated offer of tenure?
“Look what it took to get tenure,” Hannah-Jones told CBS This Morning on July 6. She noted that every other professional journalist before her since 1980 at UNC-Chapel Hill who had been offered the prestigious position of Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism had also been given tenure—essential lifetime job security in academia.
“This is my alma mater. I love the university. The university has given me a lot. I wanted to give back. It was embarrassing to be the first person to be denied tenure,” Hannah-Jones said, insisting that she “…didn’t want this to become a public scandal” when she originally accepted a five-year offer without tenure earlier in the year—after the UNC Trustee Board declined to take up her tenure offer last November, and again in January.
The fact that negative political opposition became a major factor against Hannah-Jones taking the job, in addition to her race and gender, is something, she says, she could not tolerate.
“To be denied [tenure], to have that vote occur on the last possible day, at the last possible moment, after threat of legal action, after protests, after it became a national scandal, is not something I want anymore,” Hannah-Jones told CBS. “Every person who comes up for tenure should be judged by the quality of their work,” Hannah-Jones maintained.
Having passed through UNC-Chapel Hill’s standard tenure process with glowing success, the Board of Trustees was the last stage that needed to be cleared.
“These board members were political appointees who decided that I wasn’t [qualified for tenure],” Hannah-Jones said, adding later that it was “illegal discrimination.”
The heralded black journalist confirmed that she will instead lead a program in Race and Investigative Journalism at Howard University, considered the nation’s premiere historically Black university, in addition to starting a journalism center there for serious students of the craft, teaching the principles of good professional journalism, but in the tradition of the Black press.
According to NC Policywatch, which first broke the Hannah-Jones-vs.-UNC story, she is raising at least $25 million for the establishment of the center. In a statement from Howard University, at least $20 million has already been raised for the project.
Another reason for Hannah-Jones turning thumbs down on UNC-Chapel Hill, even with the tenure vote last week, is that no one from the administration or the Board of Trustees reached out to speak to her, nor explain anything to her.
While the UNC Board voted in a 9-4 decision on June 30th to grant Hannah-Jones tenure, no other scholar at the school has ever had to fight for the standard honor. The decision came one day before Hannah-Jones was officially scheduled to begin working at the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media.
The Hannah-Jones victory is seen not only as a win for Black women in academia, but justice for free speech advocates in this current corrosive political atmosphere against the teaching of true American racial history.
By the time the 13-member UNC Trustee Board met again in an emergency session last week, it was clear that conservative politics had played a role in denying Hannah-Jones tenure because of her leadership on the award-winning 1619 Project published by the NY Times, a long-form journalistic study that retold the story of the founding of America, but this time through the prism of institutionalized slavery.
The major donor and namesake of the UNC Hussman School, conservative publisher and alumnus Walter Edward Hussman Jr., was revealed to have sent deriding emails to top UNC administrators about Hannah-Jones, questioning her journalistic professionalism.
It took threatened litigation by Hannah-Jones’ attorneys and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund—and a mountain of national criticism that put UNC-Chapel Hill’s academic and institutional reputation at risk—to finally force the UNC trustees back to the table after their refusal to take up the issue since last November.
Prior to the board vote, angry protestors disrupted the June 30th meeting and refused to leave, not realizing that the board legally could not either publicly discuss or hold a vote on what was essentially a personnel issue without going into closed session. That action forced UNC police to physically remove students from the meeting place, and some who viewed the proceedings online criticized law enforcement for being heavy-handed.
After the affirming 9-4 trustee board vote, Hannah-Jones issued a statement that read:
“Today’s outcome and the actions of the past month are about more than just me. This fight is about ensuring the journalistic and academic freedom of Black writers, researchers, teachers, and students. We must ensure that our work is protected and able to proceed free from the risk of repercussions, and we are not there yet.”
Despite the controversy and the reversal by the Board of Trustees, Hussman School Dean Susan King wrote of Hannah-Jones, “She is a journalist’s journalist, a teacher’s teacher and a woman of substance with a voice of consequence.”
Hannah-Jones told CBS that King was very supportive of her throughout the controversy, and one of the very few she told she was not accepting the position in early July when she came down to North Carolina.
Observers say this is not finished, and many still expect legal action from Nikole Hannah-Jones against UNC-Chapel Hill for discrimination.