Protests have erupted against the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill after the school’s board of trustees denied Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist Nicole Hannah-Jones tenure.
The University of North Carolina (UNC) alum is scheduled to join the faculty in July as Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism at the Hussman School of Journalism and Media, a role that previous holders have received tenure for.
Hannah-Jones is the first Knight Chair professor at the university to be denied tenure by the board of trustees.
“It seems apparent that the UNC Board of Trustees has again failed to review Nikole Hannah-Jones’s dossier for appointment as the Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism with tenure, despite affirmation at all previous levels of rigorous review,” a group of 38 faculty members wrote and signed a statement, adding, “The fact that the Board’s inaction might have resulted from donor influence is especially alarming.”
The 1619 Project published in 2019 traces the history of the United States from the year the first batch of enslaved Africans were settled in the country from their homes in Africa. The Project seeks to explain how pertinent slavery was to the founding of the country with regards to America’s economic might.
Hannah-Jones’ commentary on the project earned her the coveted Pulitzer Prize in 2020.
The incredible work of Hannah-Jones in the 1619 Project for the New York Times has been widely criticized by white conservatives including former President Donald Trump. Trump and others argue that the project “overstates the role of slavery in American history.”
Ten of the 13-member Board of Trustees at UNC are white men. The board comprises of four people appointed by the state’s Republican-majority General Assembly, eight people elected by the Board of Governors – who are appointed by the General Assembly – and the president of student government, according to USA Today.
Hannah-Jones received an offer for a five-year teaching contract in April 2021 as the Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism at UNC, a position which traditionally comes with tenure. Former Knight chairs at the university had been given the job-security measure. Hannah-Jones is being denied it despite her qualifications.
A major donor to the university raised concerns last year about hiring Hannah-Jones. “I worry about the controversy of tying the UNC journalism school to the 1619 project,” Walter E. Hussman Jr., an Arkansas newspaper publisher, wrote in an email to the dean of the school that bears his name, the news site the Assembly reported.
Meanwhile, Hannah-Jones, who received her master’s degree from UNC in 2003, has kept strong ties with the university, delivering the Hussman School’s commencement speech in 2017. The Ida B. Wells Society for Investigative Reporting, a national organization that she helped found to develop and retain journalists of color, is based at Hussman as well, per 19th News.
The backlash from alumni, students, faculty, academics, professional athletes, and over 30 groups is having a ripple effect on the university as other recently hired professors are turning down their offers following the board’s decision to deny Hannah-Jones tenure. Renowned chemist Lisa Jones, an associate professor in the Department of Pharmaceutical Sciences at the University of Maryland School of Pharmacy, withdrew her candidacy to come to the UNC College of Arts and Science’s chemistry department.
Jones said that the board’s decision against Hannah-Jones “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 efforts you have put into trying to recruit me but for me, this is hard to overlook,” Jones said in a letter withdrawing her candidacy.
Hannah-Jones took to Twitter to express gratitude to everyone who has stood by her side. She said she has never met Dr. Lisa Jones, “but the solidarity shown me by Black women in particular during this crucible is something I will never forget.”
Alberto Ibargüen, president of the Knight Foundation, said there has been a Knight Chair in Journalism at the university since 1984. He said that although the foundation does not dictate who the school should grant tenure to, “Hannah-Jones is eminently qualified for the appointment and would urge the trustees of the University of North Carolina to reconsider their decision within the timeframe of our agreement.”
It is currently not clear if or when the Board of Trustees would reconsider Hannah-Jones’ tenure. She is set to begin teaching at the university in July.