A ‘potential resolution’ to Hannah Jones tenure controversy may not heal damage done at UNC

By: - June 10, 2021 7:07 am

(Bell Tower photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

(Bell Tower photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

“Ninety percent of Black and non-white faculty right now, they are probably looking at their other options. That may be a conservative estimate.”

Attorneys for UNC-Chapel Hill will meet with the legal team of Nikole Hannah Jones Thursday to find “a potential resolution” to the tenure stand-off that has generated international headlines.

But students, faculty and members of the university’s board of trustees say regardless of whether a resolution can be found, the damage has been done: to the school’s reputation, trust in university leadership and the norms under which the school has long operated.

“The soul of our university is at stake,” said Lamar Richards, student body president at UNC-Chapel Hill and a member of the board of trustees. “We are so used to back channeling, back-room dealing and lack of transparency that it’s embedded in the foundation, in the system of governance at Carolina. That’s how we’ve operated for so long. And you can see it’s been unproductive.”

As Policy Watch has reported, the UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees declined to vote on tenure for Hannah-Jones, acclaimed journalist and creator of “The 1619 Project,” when she was hired as the Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism. She was then offered a five-year fixed-term contract — a striking departure from precedent. Previous Knight Chairs at UNC, who are by definition media professionals rather than career academics, have been hired with tenure.

Sources on the board told Policy Watch trustees had political objections to Hannah-Jones’s work and faced pressure from conservatives to prevent her hire, with or without tenure. Among the influential voices warning against the hire was Walter Hussman, the Arkansas media magnate whose $25 million donation to the journalism school led to it being named for him.

Trustees described the five-year contract as a “work-around” negotiated to prevent the tenure vote from coming to the board, where university leaders expected a political fight over Hannah-Jones’s work, much of which deals with history and race in America.

Controversy over the board’s failure to hold a tenure vote led to widespread condemnation from students, faculty, alumni and some of the school’s largest donors and funding partners.

The faculty tenure committee re-submitted Hannah-Jones’s tenure application to the board with the support of the school’s provost and Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz. But despite last week’s deadline to avoid a looming federal discrimination lawsuit from Hannah-Jones, the board has taken no action.

“I believe there is only one resolution,” Richards said. “I don’t think Nikole Hannah-Jones or her team is seeking any resolution except what they’ve already asked for clearly: a vote.”

“A domino effect”

Last week, the university saw the tangible cost of its inaction on Hannah-Jones’s tenure.

Lisa Jones, a renowned chemistry professor UNC was attempting to recruit from the University of Maryland at Baltimore, decided against coming to the school. Jones, who is Black, had been eagerly recruited by the school’s chemistry department. But in a letter to the school she called the treatment of Hannah-Jones “very disheartening.”

“It does not seem in line with a school that says it is interested in diversity,” Jones wrote to the school. “Although I know this decision may not reflect the view of the school’s faculty, I will say that I cannot see myself accepting a position at a university where this decision stands. I appreciate all of the effort you have put into trying to recruit me but for me this is hard to overlook.”

That’s likely to be the first of many such decisions by faculty and students, Richards said.

History Professor William Sturkey

“It’s a domino effect,” he said. “We’re just beginning to see it.”

William Sturkey, a professor of history at the school, has had tenure for just over a year. As a Black faculty member, he said it has been difficult to see someone with Hannah-Jones’s credentials — among them the Polk and Peabody awards and a Pulitzer Prize — face more scrutiny than her white Knight Chair predecessors. That’s all too common for Black academics, Sturkey said — particularly Black women. Because of this most recent egregious example, he said, Black faculty at UNC-Chapel Hill are reconsidering their employment.

“I think probably 90 percent of Black and non-white faculty right now, they are probably looking at their other options,” Sturkey said. “That may be a conservative estimate.”

Hannah-Jones’s case has shined a light on the severity of the problem, Sturkey said, and made recruiting top talent a greater challenge. But it is hardly a new one.

“I led a search committee last year, when we were trying to hire a historian,” Sturkey said. “I had one of our leading candidates express reservations to me about coming to UNC without tenure. She said she wasn’t sure she could enjoy academic freedom at UNC because of our governing bodies. She was worried she might be denied tenure if she writes about the history of race in America.”

It’s not hard to see why, Sturkey said.

Since he came to the university in 2015, Sturkey said he has seen a series of racially charged political scandals, each made worse by the UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees and the UNC System’s Board of Governors.

The Board of Governors is appointed by the legislature, which for the last decade has had a Republican majority. Those appointees choose eight members of the 13-member board of trustees. The legislature itself chooses four. The student body president is the thirteenth member.

The legislature’s choices show a glaring lack of racial, gender and political diversity on both boards, Sturkey said. But board members’ conservatism is also reflected in their track records.

In 2015 the school’s board of trustees voted to remove the name of reputed Ku Klux Klan leader William L. Saunders from one of the campus buildings. But the board then instituted a 16-year moratorium on renaming any other buildings on campus — a self-imposed restriction the board only lifted last year after sustained pressure from students, faculty and alumni.

In 2017, after decades of fruitless efforts to persuade the school to legally remove the ‘Silent Sam’ Confederate monument from campus, protesters toppled the statue. In response, members of the UNC Board of Governors called for the statue to be re-erected on campus. The university Board of Trustees suggested spending millions of dollars to house it at a special museum on the history of the campus.

Ultimately the UNC system, with the participation of high-ranking university officials, attempted to give the statue — along with more than $2.5 million — to a neo-Confederate group. The legal deal between the system and the Sons of Confederate Veterans was invalidated by an Orange County Superior Court judge after students and alumni mounted successful a legal fight against it.

And now Nikole Hannah-Jones, an acclaimed journalist and UNC alum, can’t even get a tenure vote that was never in question for her white predecessors.

“So this is the latest in a long series of pretty aggressive anti-Black actions and statements by our governing boards,” Sturkey said. “The reputation of the school was already struggling quite a bit because of these other fiascos. And now you have this.”

Mimi Chapman UNC-Chapel Hill’s faculty chairperson

“If I’m recruiting against UNC right now, it is not that difficult,” Sturkey said. “All I have to say is ‘They didn’t give Nikole Hannah-Jones tenure. What makes you think they’re going to give you tenure?”

Mimi Chapman, chair of the faculty at UNC-Chapel Hill, said the effect on the school is apparent and distressing. “We are starting to see a lot of people both publicly and privately voicing their concern,” Chapman said. “They’re making moves to consider other offers, take other offers, not continue recruitments that they’ve begun here. Chairs have expressed directly to me their worry about recruitments they have in process. There’s nothing good about it. It’s a highly upsetting thing.”

The politicization of decision-making in the UNC System has been occurring for years, Chapman said. But overriding tenure recommendations from the school’s faculty and administration — through trustee action or inaction — is a new and troubling development.

“I think there are people who are worried this is a test case,” Chapman said. “If the board does this here, are other boards at other schools going to follow?”

Current Board of Trustees chairman Richard Stevens insists that the decision wasn’t politically motivated. He said board members had questions about Hannah-Jones that were never answered before she was hired by the school’s leaders, albeit without tenure. That account is disputed by Susan King, dean of the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media, as well as by trustees who have spoken to Policy Watch over the last few weeks. Policy Watch has agreed not to identify those members, so that they can discuss a confidential personnel process.

Chuck Duckett, Board of Trustees at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

“The idea that this isn’t political is a joke, to put it plainly,” one such board member told Policy Watch this week. “If this was some sort of administrative snafu, a mistake where someone’s questions didn’t get answered, we would have called a meeting and had the discussion and had a vote by now. It’s been weeks. We have her dossier. We have it again. And there’s been no action. Meanwhile the school’s reputation and the trust people have in us is being harmed every day.”

Another Board of Trustees member said some of their colleagues are now floating the idea that they should simply wait until July, when new trustees cycle on to replace retiring ones. Those whose terms end include Stevens and Chuck Duckett, chairman of the University Affairs committee, from which Hannah-Jones’s tenure submission never emerged. Duckett has said publicly he had questions about Hannah-Jones’s application, but would not elaborate on what they were.

Without Stevens and Duckett, the board member told Policy Watch, a newly constituted group may be able to look at the issue with fresh eyes.

“I don’t personally think that is workable,” the board member said. “I think this is something we have to deal with sooner rather than later. [Hannah-Jones] is supposed to start on July 1. And every day we don’t deal with this is a poor reflection on us. It is not a ‘Great Day to Be a Tar Heel’.”

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Joe Killian
Joe Killian

Investigative Reporter Joe Killian's work examines government, politics and policy, with a special emphasis on higher education, LGBTQ issues and extremism.