Nikole Hannah-Jones, the celebrated writer behind The 1619 Project, was hired as the Knight Chair at UNC Chapel Hill’s Hussman School of Journalism and Media. Yet, she was denied a tenure track by the school’s board. According to faculty members, the previous two academics who held that role were given tenure immediately.
So why not Hannah-Jones? The answer likely lies in the contempt for the Pulitzer Prize winner in right-wing circles. With The 1619 Project, Hannah-Jones centered the role of slavery in American history. Conservatives were not pleased. Senator Tom Cotton, a Republican, tried to stop schools from adopting lessons inspired by The 1619 Project. He received support from then-President Donald Trump, who tweeted, “Department of Education is looking at this. If [1619 lessons adopted], they will not be funded!” When Hannah-Jones’ UNC position was first announced, a headline from The National Review read, “University of North Carolina Disgraces Itself with Latest Faculty Hire.”
But the faculty itself was apparently thrilled with landing the McArthur ‘Genius’ Grant recipient, who holds a master’s degree from the school. Her tenure application had the support of her colleagues before advancing to the board of trustees. That’s where it was denied. Instead, Hannah-Jones was offered a five-year contract.
One board member told NC Policy Watch that Hannah-Jones being denied tenure was indeed political:
“The university and the board of trustees and the Board of Governors and the legislature have all been getting pressure since this thing was first announced last month,” the trustee said. “There have been people writing letters and making calls, for and against. But I will leave it to you which is carrying more weight.”
The dean of UNC’s Hussman school, Susan King, said she was “disappointed” in the board’s decision and worries it will have a “chilling effect” on journalists who may shy away from controversial topics in order to maintain their viability for academic positions. People gathered outside the school today to protest (watch above).
Faculty members at Hussman were more pointed. “The failure to offer Hannah-Jones tenure with her appointment as a Knight chair unfairly moves the goalposts and violates long-standing norms and established processes relating to tenure and promotion at UNC Chapel Hill,” several Hussman academics wrote in a post on Medium. “The two immediately preceding Knight chairs in our School received tenure upon appointment.”
Wes Lowery from CBS News tweeted, “It’s hard to see UNC’s decision to deny tenure to Nikole Hannah Jones as anything other than an attack on press freedom — she is being penalized for producing journalism that powerful people do not like and have worked for years to silence.”
Jelani Cobb, a writer for The New Yorker, added “The UNC decision to deny tenure to Nikole Hannah Jones is obscene. Tenure exists precisely to protect faculty from this kind of politicized decision-making. We need to compare the credentials of people who *did*get tenure this year if a Pulitzer & MacArthur winner did not.”
Even some conservatives were peeved by the intrusion of politics into hiring decisions. “Political interference from the outside is wrong, even if its effect is rather minor,” wrote columnist Andrew Sullivan.
Hannah-Jones has not addressed the controversy, but tweeted on Wednesday, “I’ve been staying off of here today, but just know I see you all and I am grateful.”
Telling the truth about racism always inspires backlash. This absurd decision speaks to the profound power of Nikole’s work. https://t.co/k9yZvNPpQO— John Eligon (@jeligon) May 19, 2021