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Students and Faculty Protest UNC Chapel Hill Trustees' Decision Not To Act on Tenure for Nikole Hannah-Jones

Liz Schlemmer
Protesters Vanessa Amankwaa, a graduate student; Michelle Itano, an assistant professor; and Betty Curry hold signs outside a UNC Chapel Hill Board of Trustees meeting.

Protesters stood on the sidelines of a UNC Chapel Hill Board of Trustees meeting Thursday seeking answers to why the university did not offer tenure to a high-profile hire to the journalism school.

Nikole Hannah-Jones is the creator of the 1619 project, a longform story for The New York Times Magazine that argues the year when white Europeans first brought enslaved Africans to colonies that became the United States is a seminal date in U.S. History. She won the Pulitzer Prize for commentary for the project.

The 1619 Project has drawn criticism from conservatives nationally and in North Carolina. The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) has cited it as motivation for model legislation making its way through state legislatures to limit the teaching of critical race theory in K-12 public school classrooms.

The university announced last month that the Hussman School of Journalism & Media was hiring Hannah-Jones as its Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism, a position endowed by the The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

The Knight Foundation's president, Alberto Ibargüen, issued a statement noting that while the foundation respects the independence of the universities where it endows chairs, he hopes UNC will reconsider its decision to offer Hannah-Jones a contract position instead of tenure. The statement notes that the foundation does not play a direct role in the appointments of individuals to the chairs it endows.

“It is not our place to tell UNC or UNC/Hussman who they should appoint or give tenure to,” Ibargüen said. “It is, however, clear to us that 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.”

WUNC confirmed, as first reported by NC Policy Watch, that despite earning faculty approval for tenure, Hannah-Jones is instead being offered a 5-year contract.

Liz Schlemmer
UNC Chapel Hill graduate student Vanessa Amankwaa protests the UNC Chapel Hill Board of Trustees' decision not to offer tenure to Nikole Hannah-Jones upon hire, despite a faculty recommendation.

Vanessa Amankwaa is a master's student at UNC Chapel Hill studying public health. She went to the Board of Trustees meeting to oppose the lack of tenure for Hannah-Jones.

“I just feel like Black women already have to go through so many hurdles in life in general and in academia it's a whole different ballpark,” Amankwaa said. “To have someone be a MacArthur Fellow as well as a Pulitzer prize winner and not be granted tenure is just ridiculous and I had to come here to protest it today.”

UNC Chapel Hill Associate Professor Tori Ekstrand was there to show support after voting alongside other journalism school faculty to put Hannah-Jones’ recommendation for tenure forward to a university committee.

“We’re frustrated and stunned,” Ekstrand said. “I think for myself, I’m looking for answers.”

The university Board of Trustees makes final decisions on tenure, after the university provost submits recommendations vetted by university faculty and the applicants' own references.

Board Chair Richard Stevens said at a news conference Thursday afternoon that Trustee Chuck Duckett brought questions to Provost Bob Blouin about Hannah-Jones' academic qualifications. Duckett is the chair of the Board's university affairs committee, which handles tenure review.

Hannah-Jones has a master’s degree from the Hussman School of Journalism & Media and has significant professional experience, writing for ProPublica and The New York Times Magazine after beginning her career as an education reporter at the Raleigh News & Observer.

"[Duckett] suggested more time, and [to] postpone the review to consider those questions and her overall application," Stevens said. "That is not an unusual action for our committee."

Stevens said that neither the provost, nor the chancellor ever presented any recommendation on the appointment to the Board. Trustees "did not take any action" on the matter, Stevens underscored.

Stevens said tenure might be considered for Hannah-Jones later, but typically that would not be a consideration until a fixed contract is complete or nearing completion.

Another recent Knight Chair at the Hussman School, Penny Abernathy, was offered tenure upon hire in 2008. Her academic credentials included an MBA and an MS in journalism from Columbia University.

Hannah-Jones is set to begin teaching as a professor of practice and a Knight Chair at UNC Chapel Hill in July.

“While I am disappointed that the appointment is without tenure, there is no doubt in anyone’s mind that she will be a star faculty member,” said the journalism school’s dean Susan King in a written statement. “I am more than delighted that she will be here at UNC, teaching our next generation of journalists.”

“She is arguably the preeminent journalist of her generation,” King said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Editor's Note: The Dean of UNC's Journalism School Susan King is a member of WUNC’s Board of Directors, which is appointed by the UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees. WUNC maintains editorial independence in all news coverage, including stories involving UNC.

Liz Schlemmer is WUNC's Education Reporter, covering preschool through higher education. Email:
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