Nikole Hannah-Jones declines UNC tenure offer, heads to Howard University

By: - July 6, 2021 8:15 am

Image courtesy of Howard University

Pulitzer Prize winner Nikole Hannah-Jones will join the faculty at Howard University. (Image courtesy of Howard University)

In an exclusive interview, Hannah-Jones reveals that she and fellow award-winning journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates will launch new Center for Democracy and Journalism at Washington, DC HBCU

After months of public controversy and behind-the-scenes political struggles, acclaimed journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones has decided not to join the faculty at UNC-Chapel Hill.

Instead, the Pulitzer Prize winner will join the faculty at Howard University, where the Knight Foundation has established an endowed professorship in Race and Journalism for her — with tenure. There, at one of the most prestigious of the nation’s historically Black colleges and universities, she plans to create the Center for Journalism and Democracy. Acclaimed journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates, a Howard alum and close friend of Hannah-Jones, will join her at the school.

Hannah-Jones and Coates bring to Howard $20 million that foundations and individuals have already contributed to their positions and the new center.

The decision wasn’t an easy one, Hannah-Jones told Policy Watch in an exclusive interview this week. But the political quagmire in the UNC System and lack of transparency and support from school leadership ultimately made it inevitable.

“Literally the day the story broke, I started hearing from universities,” Hannah-Jones said. “At one school the dean said to me, ‘We’ll offer you tenure and respect.’”

Hannah-Jones felt torn. She hadn’t sought the UNC job; she was recruited for it. She had a good relationship with the dean of the journalism school, Susan King. The Ida B. Wells Society for Investigative Journalism, which Hannah-Jones co-founded, is headquartered at Chapel Hill.

Susan King, dean of UNC Hussman

“I still wanted to come to Carolina,” Hannah-Jones said. “It’s my alma mater. I love this place.”

Since May, when Policy Watch broke the story of the UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees denying Hannah-Jones a vote on tenure, faculty, staff, students and alumni have rallied around her. Major funding partners publicly called on the school to grant her tenure. The Knight Foundation, which endows the professorship for which Hannah-Jones was recruited, also pushed for the school to hire her with tenure — a status that has been afforded to all previous Knight Chairs at the school.

But as news stories revealed the extent of pressure from conservatives, including Arkansas media magnate and UNC mega-donor Walter Hussman, Hannah-Jones said returning to her alma mater to teach seemed less logical.

“Once the news broke and I started to see the extent of the political interference, particularly the reporting on Walter Hussman, it became really clear to me that I just could not work at a school named after Walter Hussman,” Hannah-Jones said. “To be a person who has stood for what I stand for and have any integrity whatsoever, I just couldn’t see how I could do that.”

The journalism school was renamed for Hussman after receiving a $25 million donation from him in 2019. The school also committed to etching what Hussman calls his “core values” into stone on the building. No one, including the school’s dean Susan King, said they foresaw that Hussman would assume the gift granted him far more than naming rights.

When King told Hussman she was pursuing Hannah-Jones for the school’s new Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism, he objected. When King stood firm, Hussman peppered Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz and Vice Chancellor David Routh, who oversees charitable giving at the school, with emails detailing his opposition. They included complaints about “The 1619 Project,” the award-winning, long-form journalism project originally published in The New York Times and conceived of by Hannah-Jones — she won a Pulitzer in commentary for her opening essay — that’s been the target of criticism from many conservatives. Hussman also personally objected to her views on reparations to Black Americans for slavery. Hussman shared his emails critical of Hannah-Jones’s work with at least one member of the UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees. The board subsequently decided not to consider her tenure application.

Guksiewicz told King that Hannah-Jones wouldn’t receive a vote on tenure. He urged her to persuade Hannah-Jones to instead accept a five-year fixed contract with no guarantee of tenure, a protection viewed by many as essential for faculty members to exercise academic freedom without political interference. The work-around was designed to circumvent a vote of the board of trustees, political appointees who were feeling pressure from the politicians and commentators on the right to deny Hannah-Jones tenure or even prevent the hire altogether.

Reluctantly, Hannah-Jones accepted the five-year contract. But at the time, she didn’t understand how it came about or why it had been made necessary. As the extent of the political gamesmanship became known, Hannah-Jones said, the idea became untenable.

“I had proven everything I felt I need to prove”

Hannah-Jones began her life in Waterloo, Iowa, in a working-class Black community where most people didn’t have college degrees. She received her bachelor’s degree from the University of Notre Dame and her master’s from UNC-Chapel Hill. From there, she worked her way up, starting with The Chapel Hill News and the Durham bureau of The News & Observer to The Oregonian, Pro Publica and The New York Times.

Having to prove herself to powerful white people and institutions is nothing new to her.

“I was bused into white schools starting in the second grade,” Hannah-Jones said. “I’ve spent my entire life fighting to prove that I belonged and deserved to be in predominantly white institutions. When this whole story broke and I learned more and more about what happened in the background, I decided that wasn’t the fight I wanted anymore.”
She chose Notre Dame as an undergrad because she knew that as a Black woman, a credential from a prestigious school would help her compete. The overwhelmingly white environment was traumatic, she said.

“The first time I was called the N-word was by Notre Dame football players,” she said.

A Black dean helped her get through undergrad, she said, and though UNC-Chapel Hill has its own racial struggles, she was largely insulated from them as a grad student at the journalism school.

In a 20-year professional journalism career, she has won nearly every major award in the industry, including the Peabody, Polk, Pulitzer and National Magazine awards. UNC-Chapel Hill has touted her as a star alum, asking her to speak at the journalism school’s commencement ceremony, honoring her with a Distinguished Alumni Award and inducting her in the school’s NC Media & Journalism Hall of Fame.

Student body president Lamar Richards

To be so accomplished, yet to face opposition by Hussman and members of the Board of Trustees — people who had never met or communicated with her — was, ultimately, just too much to take.

She didn’t back away from the fight, though, and insisted that the university offer her tenure if they still wanted her.

Lamar Richards, a rising 20-year-old junior and student body president at UNC-Chapel Hill who serves on the board of trustees, petitioned for an emergency meeting of the board, forcing a vote on the issue. On June 30, the board approved a tenure offer for her in a 9-4 vote after a three-hour closed session.

The support of the students, faculty and alumni meant a lot, Hannah-Jones said.

“The faculty, the student body, alums — were trying to do right by me,” Hannah-Jones said. “I know the university is caught up in a political system that it doesn’t desire.”

But the fact that such a fierce fight was necessary for her to be offered what was automatic for previous Knight chair professors, all of whom were white, showed she needed to go elsewhere.

From UNC leadership, a deafening silence

That didn’t have to be the case, Hannah-Jones said.

“Had there been some political courage on behalf of the leadership of the university, that also could have made my decision different,” she said.

Instead, Guskiewicz and other campus-level leaders were virtually silent throughout the controversy.

UNC Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz

“I understand that [the board of trustees] has a different vision for the university,” Hannah-Jones said. “And they’re political appointees, so I understand that. But the silence from administration, the unwillingness to come forward and say, ‘She deserved tenure at this university and to be treated like everyone else,’ the lack of transparency — I still don’t know what happened and I’ve had one-on-one conversations with the chancellor.”

The degree to which the school’s board of trustees or even the UNC Board of Governors could interfere with her as a professor would likely be minimal, Hannah-Jones said. But feeling as though she lacked the support and protection of the school’s leadership solidified her decision to go elsewhere.

“I had proven everything I felt I needed to prove,” Hannah-Jones said. “I got a lot of clarity. I decided I was going to go to a historically Black college, to a place that was built for us, for Black uplift.”

More than $20 million already secured for new center at “the crown jewel of HBCUs”

Howard was not a consolation prize, Hannah-Jones said. She chose it and, she said, she was lucky the school — which she calls “the crown jewel of HBCUs” — also chose her.

“Historically Black colleges have always had to punch above their weight,” Hannah-Jones said. “They produce a disproportionate number of Black professionals with disproportionately low funds. It’s very hard for them to attract someone like me.”

Even while she was planning to come to Chapel Hill, Hannah-Jones said she had talked with King and school leadership about creating a joint program with N.C. Central, one of the UNC System’s own HBCUs.

Now, she’ll be starting a new center at Howard designed to prepare students for the reality of journalism today. It will teach the principles that are the backbone of every good newsroom, Hannah-Jones said, but will do so in the tradition of the Black press, which has never had the luxury of prizing “objectivity” over all else.

She’s raising $25 million for the center — the same amount Hussman gave to UNC’s journalism school. “Not only am I going to go, but I’m going to try to show the resources I can bring to this institution,” Hannah-Jones said.

Three foundations and an anonymous donor have already contributed more than $20 million, according to a statement from Howard.

The Knight Foundation is providing $5 million to establish an endowment at Howard University to support a Knight Chair in Race and Journalism and to develop symposia to support journalism students and faculty across the network of HBCUs, directed by Hannah Jones, the school’s inaugural Knight Chair.

The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation is providing a $5 million grant to support the Center for Journalism and Democracy.

The Ford Foundation will provide $5 million for general operating support for the creation of the center, according to Howard. Ford’s funding is designed to support the infrastructure of the center and its programs to help increase the number of Black professionals entering journalism and enhance their career-readiness, the school said.

Journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates (Photo by Gregory Halpern)

An anonymous donor contributed $5 million to fund the Sterling Brown Chair in English and Humanities, which Coates will hold, and to establish the Ida B. Wells Endowed Fund to support the Knight Chair.

Coates is the award-winning author of Between the World and Me: Notes on the First 150 Years of America and We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy.

He is also a Howard alum who encouraged Hannah-Jones to bring her talents to the school.

“I heard a wise man once say, ‘A man who hates home will never be happy,’” Coates said in a statement on his move to Howard this week. “And it is in the pursuit of wisdom and happiness that I return to join the esteemed faculty of Howard University. This is the faculty that molded me. This is the faculty that strengthened me. Personally, I know of no higher personal honor than this.”

Alberto Ibargüen, president of Knight Foundation, said it is pleased to support the new chair, one of 26 it has endowed at 23 universities. 

“Their decision to emphasize the training of the next generation of Black journalists was decisive in our choice to endow a Knight Chair in journalism at Howard,” he said. “We congratulate Nikole Hannah-Jones, who will be the first holder of the Knight Chair at Howard. The University has chosen someone eminently qualified to train the next generation of journalists.”

Alberto Ibargüen, president of Knight Foundation

John Palfrey, president of the MacArthur Foundation, said it is proud to support Hannah-Jones’s work at “a moment of inflection on the impact of race and racism in the United States and around the world.”

“Hannah-Jones’ twin passions of investing in the next generation of Black journalists and her tireless quest for the U.S. to confront and repair the enduring legacy of slavery through the 1619 Project will now have a home at Howard University,” Palfrey said in a statement. “We are excited about the opportunity Howard offers for Hannah-Jones and Coates, two MacArthur Fellows, to build a legacy in the fight for racial justice.”

 “Journalism has a tangible effect on communities and cultural narratives, so we are thrilled to support the Pulitzer Prize winner Nikole Hannah-Jones, Ta-Nehisi Coates and this legendary institution in fostering the next generation of Black journalists,” said Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation, in a statement.

“As our news and information rapidly change, the media must do more to diversify the ranks of newsroom decision-makers who determine the stories that are told,” Walker said. “We believe the establishment of this center at Howard University will play a critical role in helping to advance this important public interest objective.”

No one’s name is going on the the new center, Hannah-Jones said. Nor will they be etching any one person’s ideas about journalism into granite there. Instead, she said, she’s going to prepare students for a volatile world and their roles in it — which even the most prestigious programs seem to be neglecting.

“I always find it interesting when people talk about ‘objectivity’ as though the stated goals of journalism are neutral,” Hannah-Jone said. “They’re not.”

The best journalism programs need to teach students to question history, orthodoxy, and how systems work and why, Hannah-Jones said, particularly now, at a volatile time for democracy in America.

“We can see this in political reporting all across the country,” Hannah-Jones said. “Folks who have too much faith in political institutions, who are not critical enough, who believe our democracy will hold because their experience has taught them that.”

“There is a depth, complexity and urgency that is missing in too much of our coverage,” Hannah-Jones said.

The Center for Journalism and Democracy at Howard will emphasize that the two things are intertwined, she said. “Journalism is the firewall,” she said. “The firewall is eroding.”

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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.