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UNC-CH Board Of Trustees Votes In Favor Of Tenure For Nikole Hannah-Jones

Faculty members of a North Carolina university want an explanation for the school's reported decision to back away from offering a tenured teaching position to Nikole Hannah-Jones. Hannah-Jones' work on the country’s history of slavery has drawn the ire of conservatives. A report in NC Policy Watch on Wednesday, May 19, 2021 said Hannah-Jones was to be offered a tenured professorship as the Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Courtesy John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation
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Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones will be returning to her alma mater as a full professor at the UNC Chapel Hill Hussman School of Journalism and Media following a vote Wednesday by the UNC-CH Board of Trustees.

Updated at 9:13 p.m.

Nikole Hannah-Jones' battle for tenure at UNC Chapel Hill has ended with a victory for the prominent Black journalist and creator of the '1619 Project.'

Following a closed session meeting Wednesday, marked by the forceful removal of student protesters, the UNC Chapel Hill Board of Trustees voted 9-to-4 to grant her tenure.

Hannah-Jones said in a statement Wednesday evening that she was honored and grateful for the widespread support she received in her fight for tenure. She said the tenure issue is about more than just her.

“This fight is about ensuring the journalistic and academic freedom of Black writers, researchers, teachers, and students,” said Hannah-Jones, who didn’t attend the meeting. “We must ensure that our work is protected and able to proceed free from the risk of repercussions, and we are not there yet.”

In a statement posted to the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund website, Hannah-Jones didn’t immediately commit to coming to UNC.

“These last weeks have been very challenging and difficult and I need to take some time to process all that has occurred and determine what is the best way forward,′ she said.

Hannah-Jones is being offered the role of Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism for the journalism school, a position that was set to start in July and was initially announced in April. Wednesday's decision gives Hannah-Jones a lifetime appointment and academic freedom to pursue her research interests.

Before Wednesday, UNC Chapel Hill had little to say about why tenure was not offered,but Walter Hussman, an Arkansas newspaper publisher and a prominent donor whose name is on the journalism school, revealed he had emailed university leaders challenging her work as “highly contentious and highly controversial” before the process was halted.

“The University has now voted to grant tenure to Ms. Nikole Hannah-Jones. I look forward to meeting her and discussing journalism,” Hussman said in a text message. “Our plan is to continue to support the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media in advocating for the core values.”

UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media Dean Susan King said in a statement that she is "deeply appreciative that the board has voted in favor" of tenure for Hannah-Jones. North Carolina's Democratic Governor Roy Cooper also issued a statement on Twitter saying the board of trustees "did the right thing" in voting for Hannah-Jones' tenure.

Earlier in the year, Hannah-Jones’ tenure application was halted because she did not come from a “traditional academic-type background,” and trustee Charles Duckett, who vets the lifetime appointments wanted more time to consider her qualifications, university leaders had said. Duckett voted Wednesday for approval of her tenure application.

Some conservatives have complained about The 1619 Project, which focused on the country’s history of slavery.

The earlier decision by trustees to halt Hannah-Jones’ tenure submission sparked a torrent of criticism within the community. It also laid bare a depth of frustration over what critics decried as the school’s failure to answer longstanding concerns about the treatment of Black faculty, staff and students.

Removal of Students

On Wednesday, the board of trustees moved swiftly into a closed session after opening its special meeting Wednesday. The meeting was called after UNC Student Body President Lamar Richards initiated a petition to force a meeting to vote on Hannah-Jones' tenure after the board did not act on her recommendation by a faculty committee months ago.

The gallery of the room was packed with students, alumni and faculty who support Hannah-Jones. Several members of the UNC Black Student Movement refused to leave when the closed session was announced and police officers forcefully removed them, pushing them out the doors.

Student Julia Clark, vice president of the Black Student Movement, said she was hit in the face by a police officer while being removed from the closed session meeting.

"You pushed us. You forced us out. Being peaceful?" Taliajah "Teddy" Vann shouted at police through a bull horn in the hallway outside the closed doors.

UNC Chapel Hill officials told reporters it is standard for university personnel decisions to be made in closed session under state law, but students say they did not expect the meeting to be closed or understand why they were treated harshly.

The final vote was made in public session, with Dave Boliek, Haywood Cochrane, Allie Ray McCullen and John Preyer voting nay.

In announcing the final vote, board chair Gene Davis said the board "reaffirms that it puts its highest values first," which was met with laughter from students.

"What makes us a great university is not the absence of tension or debate, rather, what makes us great is the constructive tension," Davis said.

Members of the UNC Black Student Movement confront UNC-CH Board of Trustees Chair Gene Davis. Several members of the Black Student Movement refused to leave when the closed session was announced and police officers forcefully removed them, pushing them out the doors.
Liz Schlemmer
Members of the UNC Black Student Movement confront UNC CH Board of Trustees Chair Gene Davis. Several members of the Black Student Movement refused to leave when the closed session was announced and police officers forcefully removed them, pushing them out the doors.

Students confronted board chair Gene Davis after the meeting to demand to know why board members had allowed police officers to push them from the room.

Davis responded by offering to meet with student leaders. President of the UNC Black Student Movement Taliajah "Teddy" Vann said a coalition of groups led by Black students are crafting a complete list of demands for the university to address longstanding issues of racial equity.

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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