UNC Board of Trustees could reconsider tenure for Pulitzer-winning journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones

By: - May 26, 2021 9:23 am
(Bell Tower photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

UNC Board of Governors will not intervene

Nikole Hannah-Jones’s candidacy for tenure has been resubmitted to the UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees, Policy Watch confirmed Wednesday.

The UNC-Chapel Hill Provost’s office asked the school’s Committee on Appointments, Promotion and Tenure to resubmit Hannah-Jones’s name, two sources with direct knowledge of the process. Policy Watch has agreed not to identify these sources so that they can discuss a confidential personnel matter.

The recommendation does not force the board to take a vote on Hannah-Jones’s tenure, but does effectively put the decision back in their hands.

It’s not clear what the timeline will be on this new development, but three members of the board said they expect the matter to come to a full vote of the board by the end of June.

As Policy Watch has reported, the board failed to approve Hannah-Jones, acclaimed journalist and creator of “The 1619 Project,” for tenure when she was hired at the UNC Hussman School as the Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism. She was then hired on a five year fixed-term contract — a striking departure from precedent. Previous Knight Chairs at UNC have been hired with tenure.

Sources on the board told Policy Watch that trustees had political objections to Hannah-Jones’s work and faced pressure from conservatives to prevent approval of her tenure. The five-year contract was described as a “work-around” negotiated to prevent the tenure vote from coming to the board.

Board chairman Richard Stevens said last week the matter never came to a full vote of the board because University Affairs committee Chairman Chuck Duckett asked that it be put on hold. Board members had concerns about Hannah-Jones coming from a non-academic background, Steven said. All previous Knight Chair professors have been media professionals, not academics. The positions are designed to bring those professionals and their industry knowledge into classrooms at universities across the country.

At the heart of this controversy is the institution of tenure. This academic appointment essentially locks in a professor’s career, meaning they can  be fired only for cause or under extreme circumstances. The idea is that tenure allows academics to pursue potentially controversial subjects without worrying about being victims of the political climate of their time.

“What tenure affords people is protection in order to pursue their scholarship and their ideas, without fear of being dismissed for those ideas,” Mimi Chapman, chair of the UNC-Chapel Hill Faculty Executive Committee said. “So it’s very linked to freedom of expression and freedom of speech.”

The news comes after UNC’s Faculty Executive Committee, Hussman faculty and community groups across the nation have protested the board’s failure to grant tenure to Hannah-Jones. Last week, UNC’s Student Body President Lamar Richards, who is a member of the Board of Trustees, sent a strongly-worded letter to the chancellor and provost at UNC-Chapel Hill, as well as the board of trustees chair, demanding they take a vote on tenure as soon as possible.

On Wednesday, The News & Observer published a two page ad bought by 1,619 UNC-Chapel Hill alumni in support of Hannah-Jones’s tenure.

“We are 1,619 University of North Carolina alumni outraged by the Board of Trustees’ failure to approve a tenured professorship for UNC aluma and founder of The 1619 Project, Nikole Hannah-Jones,” the alumni wrote in the ad. “Dismissing a list of merits that includes winning the Pulitzer Prize, Peabody Award and MacArthur “Genius” Grant is an attempt to penalize Nikole Hannah-Jones for her groundbreaking and unvarnished reporting of American history. We demand that the Board of Trustees immediately revisit this matter, grant tenure as recommended by the appropriate faculty, Dean and Provost, and restore the integrity of our university.”

UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz again declined to comment on the issue Wednesday.

Despite ‘strong opinions’ UNC Board of Governors will leave Chapel Hill’s trustees to decide

UNC Board of Governors Chair Randy Ramsey

UNC Board of Governors Chairman Randy Ramsey said it would be unfair for him to give his personal opinion on Hannah-Jones’ case as it is a campus-level issue in which the board of governors will not be involving itself.

“The board of governors can’t have any input in this issue,” Ramsey said in an interview with Policy Watch Wednesday. “This is a trustee issue. The policy I think was even changed in 2019. It can’t come to us. So it’s completely a campus issue and they’ll have to deal with it.”

Tenure is and should be a campus-level issue with a process largely driven by faculty, Ramsey said.

“I think there are some strong opinions about tenure,” Ramsey said. “We understand that tenure is very important in the recruitment process for the universities, in getting the very best and brightest. I think it’s largely a faculty issue. I know it’s largely a faculty issue. They’re evaluated by their faculty as they come through and they’re evaluated for their performance after they gain tenure. As for how that would be changed or something…I wouldn’t pretend to be an expert on that, nor would I pretend to have much of an opinion.”

Ramsey said he hasn’t spoken to members of the UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees as the Hannah-Jones tenure controversy has unfolded in the last week.

“Our expectation is for the trustees to take the delegated authority they have and do their job,” Ramsey said.

Governance of the universities – like governance of the UNC system – is designed to be shared, Ramsey said. Faculty, administrators and governing boards all have roles to play. Sometimes that’s not an easy process, he said.

“I think that shared governance in our system is extremely important,” Ramsey said. “If that sometimes means that people don’t get the answers that they want, that’s unfortunate. But as you have seen here at this board of governors, we have shared governance here. We don’t always agree. But I think the important thing that I hope that you all will remember in this conversation is, everyone wants the best for the university. Nobody is trying to do anything to hurt the state of North Carolina or hurt the system.”

UNC journalism student Kyle Ingram is a summer intern at NC Policy Watch.

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