Nikole Hannah-Jones denied tenure at UNC, prompts response from New York Times

Photo by Evan Agostini/Invision/AP, File

The University of North Carolina denied tenure to Nikole Hannah-Jones, the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer of an introductory essay of the Times Magazine’s 1619 Project. Hannah-Jones developed the journalism project for the New York Times and the New York Times Magazine. Conservatives are being blamed for the denial of tenure.

Since its publication in 2019, the 1619 Project has been highly controversial. It is seen as a re-writing of history by its critics. The work has been discredited by many historians and experts, with some calling for factual corrections. It should not be a surprise that her controversy followed Hannah-Jones to UNC. Nor should it be a surprise that conservatives are being blamed.

The 1619 Project ignited a continuing debate about the legacy of slavery, but has faced criticism from some historians over certain claims, and from conservatives who have labeled it “propaganda.” The Republican-controlled North Carolina Legislature appoints the university system’s Board of Governors, which has significant control over the university’s board of trustees.

Liberals like to describe the project as a “reframing” of American history. Conservatives see it as a grievance-based rewriting of American history.

Hannah-Jones’s 1619 Project — which includes audio, essays, poems, graphics and visual art pieces — reframes the history of the U.S. through the legacy of slavery and its ultimate influence on the country’s democracy. She has maintained extensive ties to 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.

The premise of most reporting on this decision is that she’s entitled to tenure because the last two professors who held the current position of Hannah-Jones at UNC were granted tenure. Hannah-Jones still has a teaching job at UNC and she was offered a five-year contract instead of tenure. She has support for tenure from facility and approval from the tenure committee. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is her alma mater. In April the university announced she would be the newest Knight Chair, traditionally a tenured position. At the time, she issued a statement that set the tone.

“My courses will examine the big questions about journalism,” Hannah-Jones said in a statement in April after her hiring was announced. “But they will also bring the practical experiences and advice of someone who covered daily beats, who had to fight to be in a position to do big projects, who can speak to the rigors of academic and accumulated knowledge, but also the practicalities of how you build a career, navigate the industry and deal with setbacks.”

Letters of support and of disapproval have been received by the university, board of trustees, and the legislature. The university is not providing reasons for the denial of tenure, citing personal privacy issues. Hannah-Jones’ editors are speaking up for her, as you would imagine.

Ms. Hannah-Jones’s editors voiced their support on Wednesday. “Nikole is a remarkable investigative journalist whose work has helped change the national conversation about race,” said Dean Baquet, executive editor of The New York Times.

Jake Silverstein, editor of The Times Magazine, strongly defended her and her work.

“Nikole’s journalism, whether she’s writing about school segregation or American history, has always been bold, unflinching and dedicated to telling uncomfortable truths that some people just don’t want to hear,” Mr. Silverstein said. “It doesn’t always make her popular, but it’s part of why hers is a necessary voice.”

The Knight Foundation which funds her position at UNC refused to get dragged into the argument.

Alberto Ibargüen, the president of Knight Foundation, said that while the foundation funds the Knight Chair position at U.N.C., it has no role in appointments. The agreement calls for a five-year appointment, with tenure review within that period, he said.

“It is not our place to tell U.N.C. or U.N.C./Hussman who they should appoint or give tenure to,” Mr. Ibargüen said in a statement. “It is, however, clear to us that Hannah-Jones is eminently qualified for the appointment and we would urge the trustees of the University of North Carolina to reconsider their decision within the time frame of our agreement.”

Hannah-Jones kept a low profile while the controversy was brewing on Wednesday after the announcement was made.

At least one faculty member was not silent, though, and responded to Hannah-Jones’ single tweet on the subject.

A letter was written by faculty members in support of her tenure. They brush away criticism that Hannah-Jones is not a teacher, she’s an activist and a journalist. Besides demanding an explanation, the letter notes that just last year the Board of Trustees approved “Carolina Next: Innovations for Public Good” which prioritizes diversity and equity.

The two immediately preceding Knight chairs in our School received tenure upon appointment. The university counts among its ranks of tenured faculty many leading professionals with distinguished work in their fields. Indeed, one great strength of the Hussman School is that our students learn directly from people who spent decades in advertising, public relations, business, and journalism. The university and its leadership have routinely confirmed the outcome of the numerous faculty bodies entrusted to make decisions as to what is best for their students.

We demand explanations from the university’s leadership at all levels. Nikole Hannah-Jones does necessary and transformative work on America’s racial history. 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.

The failure to tenure Hannah-Jones is especially disappointing given that just last year the university’s Board of Trustees unanimously endorsed “Carolina Next: Innovations for Public Good,” UNC-Chapel Hill’s strategic plan. The plan calls on the university to “prioritize diversity, equity, and inclusion in teaching, research and service, and in hiring, evaluation, retention and promotion of under-represented faculty and staff.”

That sound you hear is the smacking of heads as people read a reference to the “national politicization” of universities and journalism. Those who live in the academic world, in bubbles, are the least self-aware of all. People speaking up against the teaching of an alternative version of American history in a large university, as in this case, are doing so out of concern of what is being taught to the upcoming generation. Ms. Hannah-Jones clearly wants to serve as a mentor to her students as she promotes theories of systemic racism and social inequality, sending them off into their journalism careers with a slanted point of reference.

This tweet from NPR’s activist journalist sums it up pretty well. What more needs to be said?