The decision of the University of North Carolina to not approve MacArthur “Genius Grant” and Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times journalist, Nikole Hannah-Jones for tenure at the school has drawn backlash from both academic and media circles.
Jones, who developed and led the groundbreaking 1619 Project for The New York Times Magazine on the institution and legacy of slavery for which she won the Pulitzer, was appointed to the Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism at UNC. She was set to start there as a professor in July, while remaining with the Times Magazine. But rather than a tenured position, she was offered only a five-year contract, with an option to review, according to the Times.
Conservative criticism over the 1619 Project reportedly influenced the university’s decision to decline an approval of tenure for Hannah-Jones, according to NC Policy Watch, a political watchdog website. When the announcement came of her hiring in April, outspoken elements balked at her joining the faculty with some deriding her work on the project, calling it “political agitation,” while other right-wing elements blasted it for having “inaccuracies.”
Both the Times and Hannah-Jones have publicly defended the project since it debuted in 2019. But, according to the Times, North Carolina’s state legislature, which is Republican controlled, appoints the state university system’s Board of Governors, which in turn has major influence over UNC’s Board of Trustees.
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The university has not commented on the decision except in a statement from UNC spokesperson Joanne Peters Denny, that said “details of individual faculty hiring processes are personnel protected information,” the Times reports.
But faculty members were not happy with the decision, with many saying Hannah-Jones was certainly qualified for tenure and there is no reason she should not have it, given that the last two people in the position were awarded it.
“Failure to tenure Nikole Hannah-Jones in her role as the Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism is a concerning departure from UNC’s traditional process and breaks precedent with previous tenured full professor appointments of Knight chairs in our school,” read an online statement from 43 faculty members and 215 additional signatories. “This failure is especially disheartening because it occurred despite the support for Hannah-Jones’s appointment as a full professor with tenure by the Hussman Dean, Hussman faculty, and university. Hannah-Jones’s distinguished record of more than 20 years in journalism surpasses expectations for a tenured position as the Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism.”
Further, the National Association of Black Journalists, which named Hannah-Jones Journalist of the Year in 2015, said that it reached out to UNC officials about their declining to grant her tenure and was displeased that conservative skepticism over the 1619 Project may have been behind it.
“If the speculations are true, then we denounce any decision to deny a distinguished journalist tenure because she simply did her job by reporting facts about slavery in America,” said NABJ president Dorothy Tucker in a statement. "The university would be sending a message to its students that it does not support press freedom and that seeking the truth and reporting it is not a pillar it believes should be a part of our profession, and that the work of Black journalists, or any journalist, to expose the ills of slavery and its impact on America is unmerited.”
Hanna-Jones, who is a UNC alumnus having earned her master’s degree at its Hussman School of Journalism and Media in 2003, has not responded directly to the school’s decision but simply tweeted to her supporters on Thursday, thanking them.