Posted on July 1, 2021

After Contentious Debate, UNC Grants Tenure to Nikole Hannah-Jones

David Folkenflik, NPR, June 30, 2021

Trustees for the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill voted Wednesday afternoon at a closed session to give tenure to star New York Times writer Nikole Hannah-Jones several months after refusing to consider her proposed tenure.

The case inspired a bruising debate over race, journalism and academic freedom. It led both to national headlines and anger and distress among many Black faculty members and students at UNC. Some professors there have publicly said they were reconsidering their willingness to remain at the university over the journalist’s treatment.

“We welcome Nikole Hannah-Jones back to campus,” the UNC’s board vice chairman, Gene Davis, said at the close of statements after the three-hour special session of the trustees. {snip}

“We embrace and endorse academic freedom and vigorous debate and constructive disagreement,” Davis said. He also said the campus was not a place for calling people “woke” or “racist.” {snip}


Hannah-Jones issued a statement Wednesday evening through the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund thanking her supporters, some of whom, she said, put themselves “at physical risk.” Protesters had demonstrated Wednesday afternoon at the Carolina Inn, where the meeting was held, and were confronted inside before its start by campus police. They relented, heading outside, after being informed that Hannah-Jones had asked for a private meeting.

“Today’s outcome and the actions of the past month are about more than just me,” Hannah-Jones wrote. “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.”

She struck a note that seemed to convey ambiguity about whether she would return to the campus. {snip}

Months earlier, board members asked for more information about her academic credentials when originally declining to take up her proposed tenure. It soon became clear that significant opposition had emerged to her work on “The 1619 Project,” a New York Times initiative she conceived on the legacy of slavery on U.S. society today.


Some of that opposition came from Walter Hussman, a UNC donor and Arkansas newspaper publisher whose name adorns UNC’s journalism school. Hussman, who is also an alumnus, told NPR he was given pause by some prominent scholars’ criticism that Hannah-Jones distorted the historical record in arguing that the protection of slavery was one of the Founding Fathers’ primary motivations in seeking independence from the British. {snip}


Hannah-Jones was up for a professorship endowed by the Knight Foundation; several predecessors in the professorship were granted tenure while, like Hannah-Jones, also lacking a doctorate. {snip}


Hussman argued against her credentials by saying she was helping to erode trust in the press by ignoring important journalistic principles of objectivity — the idea that reporters should not take sides.


“I was especially concerned that the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media would become more closely associated with the 1619 Project than the school’s core value of objectivity, impartiality, integrity, the pursuit of truth, and the separation of news and opinion,” Hussman wrote in an email to NPR after Wednesday’s vote was announced.


In her earlier interview with NPR, Hannah-Jones said the promise of objectivity is a subterfuge.

“Most mainstream newspapers reflect power,” she said. “They don’t actually reflect the experiences of large segments of these populations, and that’s why many of these populations don’t trust them. So when I hear that, I think he’s speaking to a different audience.”

King has argued that Hannah-Jones’ intensive interests in reporting on race and society spoke to the moment and would enhance student experience. {snip}