As board prepares to vote on Hannah-Jones tenure, struggle continues over direction of UNC

By: - June 29, 2021 12:43 pm
UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media Building

UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media (Photo by Mihaly Istvan Lukacs/Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.)

Carroll Hall UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media (Photo by Mihaly Istvan Lukacs/Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.)

Tenure supporters express optimism even as outside political pressure mounts

After more than a month of headlines, revelations, petitions and protests, the UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees will meet Wednesday to confront the issue of tenure for Nikole Hannah-Jones.

The move comes after Lamar Richards, student body president at UNC-Chapel Hill and member of the school’s board of trustees, petitioned for a special meeting of the board to publicly deal with the controversy. Five other trustees joined in the petition effort, forcing a special meeting.

There are enough votes on the board to approve Hannah-Jones’s tenure, sources on the board and at the UNC System level told Policy Watch this week. But members said they continue to face political pressure from the UNC Board of Governors, political appointees of the North Carolina General Assembly’s Republican majority.

“There have been discussions of financial settlements, of board members not showing up to the meeting and either preventing a vote or just not being on record even if the vote happens,” one board member told Policy Watch Monday.

Policy Watch agreed not to identify the board member so that they could discuss a personnel matter and deliberations of the board.

Nikole Hannah-Jones

“Right now I think the momentum is with approval and we’ll just see if that can stay steady for the next 48 hours,” the board member said.

Another board member said they had direct knowledge of board of governors members and North Carolina lawmakers reaching out to trustees themselves or through intermediaries.

“With all the attention this has gotten, there is a lot of pressure both for the board to approve tenure and to get rid of [Hannah-Jones] altogether and just prevent her from even coming to the school,” the board member said. “There have definitely been discussions of how much it would cost to just ‘pay her off’ in a legal settlement and just move on.”

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 recruited for the position. Despite support from the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media, the faculty tenure committee, Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz and Provost Bob Blouin, the board’s University Affairs committee chose not to move Hannah-Jones’s application to a full board vote.

Instead, she was 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 that 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.

After media reports revealed the behind-the-scenes political maneuvering, many students, faculty members and alumni expressed outrage. Knight Chair professors and deans from across the country, the Knight Foundation itself and one of UNC-Chapel Hill’s other major funding partners all called on the board to approve tenure for Hannah-Jones.

The school’s leaders resubmitted Hannah-Jones for tenure, but the board took no action. Hannah-Jones secured legal representation, threatening a federal discrimination lawsuit. Though she was scheduled to begin at the school on July 1, her legal team made it clear she would not be accepting the position without tenure.

More debates ahead

July 1 is also the date on which the terms of six members of the board of trustees will end and six new members will cycle on. Board members said there has been pressure to put off any decision until then, allowing a newly constituted board to handle it.

One of the new trustees is Marty Kotis, a Greensboro developer and businessman who just completed two terms on the UNC Board of Governors. Kotis, a Chapel Hill alum who leans libertarian, was known as something of a maverick on the board of governors. Often pushing for the board to see and operate the university system more like a private business, Kotis also occasionally butted heads with other board members or trustees of individual universities he believed were out of line.

Last year, when two members of East Carolina University’s board of trustees were accused of trying to influence a student government election, Kotis pushed hard and publicly to remove them as other members of the board of governors played down the charges.

Reached this week for an interview, Kotis declined to weigh in on the question of tenure for Nikole Hannah-Jones as he’s not yet officially a trustee.

Philosophically, Kotis said, he is against the tenure system in general and believes there is an unfairness in the way faculty members are compensated — including the discrepancy between tenured faculty and lower-paid adjunct instructors.

Marty Kotis

“When you look at what we’re paying some of our professors, assistant professors and adjuncts, I think you have to ask if the best thing is to have more of the highest paid faculty in lifetime appointments,” Kotis said. “I don’t believe in lifetime appointments. You don’t see it in the private sector. You see it with popes and with monarchs.”

Faculty members consider the tenure system a backbone of academic freedom, ensuring professors won’t lose their jobs for publishing or teaching things within their subject matter expertise that are politically controversial. Traditionally, the boards of trustees of UNC schools have depended on the vetting of faculty committees and have followed the recommendations of campus-level leaders on tenure, approving them with little debate. Kotis said that’s unlikely to be the case going forward.

“I’ve never been someone who just does things the way they’ve always been done, because that’s the way we’ve done it in the past,” Kotis said. “I think our universities have to grow and change and keep up with the times or we’re going to become obsolete.”

While he may be skeptical of the tenure system in general, Kotis said, he would be for taking a vote on tenure candidates rather than preventing a vote from occurring.

“I’ve always been for having a vote, even on controversial issues,” Kotis said. “You’ve seen me vote against everyone else and be the only vote on something. That doesn’t bother me.”

But Kotis had criticism for Richards, the student body president and trustee who has pushed hardest for a tenure vote. Pointing to a column penned by Richards, Kotis said it was irresponsible of the student leader, who is Black, to tell other Black students not to come to the university.

“The sincerest thing I can share with each of you is that Carolina is not prepared,” Richards wrote.

Lamar Richards

“Carolina is not prepared for the ‘reckoning’ of which it continues to speak and it is certainly not prepared to face the reality of having to undo the entire system upon which it was built—and rebuild.”

“Until this rebirth occurs, Carolina is not deserving of your talents, aspirations, or successes,” Richards wrote. “If you are a student, staff member, or academic from a historically marginalized identity exploring UNC, I invite you to look elsewhere. If you are considering graduate school, law school, medical school, or other professional programs at UNC, I challenge you to seek other options. While Carolina desperately needs your representation and cultural contributions, it will only bring you here to tokenize and exploit you. And to those that will attempt to misconstrue these words—my words—understand this: I love Carolina, yes, but I love my people and my community more.”

Kotis called those sentiments “irresponsible” and “a sign of immaturity.”

“How irresponsible is it to say ‘don’t come to the school’?” Kotis said. “He’s from South Carolina and he came to the school and he’s staying there.”

Richards has said his comments express the frustration of Black students, faculty and staff. He points to students who have already told him they are not coming or returning to the university and prominent faculty who are leaving and recruits who are turning down offers from the school.

That may reflect a difference of opinion between students, faculty and the appointed leaders at the trustee and board of governors levels as to what direction is right for the school, Kotis said. The General Assembly ultimately has the authority to take the university in the direction it thinks best for all the people of the state and to provide a university education for as close to free as can be managed, Kotis said. The General Assembly’s appointees on governing boards believe they’re doing just that, he said.

“Ultimately we’re entrusted with what’s best for the university in the long-term,” Kotis said. “There may be controversies that get a lot of attention or that the media concentrates on, but ultimately what we’re thinking about is that long-term direction.”

This post has been updated to clarify a statement made by Marty Kotis regarding the compensation paid to adjunct faculty members.

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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.