Acclaimed journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones retains legal counsel in UNC-Chapel Hill tenure controversy

By: - May 27, 2021 3:10 pm

Acclaimed journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones has retained legal counsel in the battle over the UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees’ failure to consider her for tenure as the school’s Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism.

In a statement Thursday, Hannah-Jones said she will be represented jointly by the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, Levy Ratner, P.C., and Ferguson Chambers & Sumter, P.A.

Hannah Jones said she is taking the step “to ensure the academic and journalistic freedom of Black writers is protected to the full extent of the law and to seek redress for the University of North Carolina’s adverse actions against me.”

Hannah-Jones said the board failed to consider and approve her application for tenure, which she said was a condition of her employment, despite the recommendation of the faculty, the dean of the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media, the school’s provost and chancellor.

“I had no desire to bring turmoil or a political firestorm to the university that I love,” Hannah-Jones said. “But I am obligated to fight back against a wave of anti-democratic suppression that seeks to prohibit the free exchange of ideas, silence Black voices and chill free speech.”

Nikole Hannah Jones

“The right to free expression is a cornerstone of our democracy, and its protection is particularly critical for Black Americans and other marginalized groups who have a long history of battling infringement of this right,” Hannah-Jones wrote. “As a Black woman who has built a nearly two-decades long career in journalism, I believe Americans who research, study, and publish works that expose uncomfortable truths about the past and present manifestations of racism in our society should be able to follow these pursuits without risk to their civil and constitutional rights.”

“I continue to be proud of my work through The Ida B. Wells Society for Investigative Reporting, The 1619 Project and my years of investigative reporting on the ways segregation and inequality is maintained through official action and policy,” Hannah-Jones wrote.

In a letter to the school obtained by Policy Watch, Hannah-Jones’ legal representatives said they are “evaluating all available legal recourse to fully vindicate Ms. Hannah-Jones’ rights, including possibly initiating a federal action against UNC, the Board, and/or affiliated individuals.”

UNC Media relations acknowledged receipt of the letter to Policy Watch Thursday but said the school had no further comment.

The lawyers  laid out their case in their own written statement.

“The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. (LDF), along with co-counsel Levy Ratner, P.C. and Ferguson Chambers & Sumter, P.A., have advised the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (“UNC”) and its Board of Trustees (the “Board”) that we will be representing Nikole Hannah-Jones in connection with the Board’s unprecedented failure to consider and approve the faculty recommendation of tenure for her Knight Foundation-endowed Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism,” they wrote. “All previous UNC Knight Chairs have received tenure in conjunction with their appointments, and Ms. Hannah-Jones’s credentials not only match but exceed those of prior UNC Knight Chairs. The Board of Trustees’ refusal to consider and approve her tenure recommendation is in lock step with the political, conservative and race-based backlash across the country that seeks to revise the truth of racism throughout our Nation’s history and to censor honest conversations about race in America.”

“To retaliate against truthtellers, like Ms. Hannah-Jones, for speaking honestly, accurately, and bravely about some of the most shameful and enduring acts of oppression in our country is one of the most dangerous forms of discrimination and repression in a democratic society,” they wrote. “UNC has unlawfully discriminated against Ms. Hannah-Jones based on the content of her journalism and scholarship and because of her race. We will fight to ensure that her rights are vindicated.”

As Policy Watch first reported last week, 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 instead 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. Board members described the five-year contract as a “work-around” negotiated to prevent the tenure vote from coming to the board, where debate would quickly have become political.

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.

This week, after national headlines and letters of protest from faculty, students, alumni and academics from across the country, the school’s provost re-submitted Hannah-Jones to the board for tenure consideration.

Read the full letter from Hannah-Jones’s legal representatives below.

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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.