The Pulse

Knight Foundation urges UNC-Chapel Hill trustees to approve tenure for acclaimed journalist

By: - May 21, 2021 8:00 am

The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation issued a statement Thursday asking the UNC Board of Trustees to approve tenure for Nikole Hannah-Jones, the Pulitzer Prize winning journalist hired as the school’s Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism.

As Policy Watch first reported this week, Hannah-Jones was pursued for a tenured position but after objections from conservative groups and members of the school’s board of trustees, was instead offered a fixed five-year appointment.

Nikole Hannah Jones

“It is not our place to tell UNC or UNC/Hussman who they should appoint or give tenure to,” sad Alberto Ibargüen, president of the Knight Foundation, in a statement. “It is, however, clear to us that Hannah-Jones is eminently qualified for the appointment and would urge the trustees of the University of North Carolina to reconsider their decision within the timeframe of our agreement.”

The Knight Chairs in journalism from across the country also released a statement, saying the university should be “should be ashamed of their decision” and move quickly to offer tenure to Hannah-Jones.

“The Board of Trustees appear to be uncomfortable with Hannah-Jones’ body of work, including the view of American history she painstakingly documented and beautifully presented in the 1619 Project,” the professors wrote in their statement. “You can agree or disagree with honestly held interpretations of history, but to sanction someone for her point of view is the opposite of freedom of speech.”

Knight Chairs have been tenured positions at UNC-Chapel Hill since the program was first established there in the early 1980s. The program brings working media professionals to colleges and universities. Most Knight Chairs, including those who have held the position at UNC-Chapel Hill, do not come from an academic background.

“Hannah-Jones, a 2003 master’s graduate of UNC, has equivalent academic credentials to the prior two chairs at the school,” the Knight Chair professors wrote. “Both received tenure upon appointment. The unequal treatment is clear in this case.”

Tenured positions must be approved by the UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees. The board did not take action on Hannah-Jones’ application, which was approved by the school’s faculty and recommended to the board by Provost Bob Blouin.

In a virtual press conference Thursday UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees Chairman Richard Stevens said the process stalled out in the board’s University Affairs Committee. Committee Chairman Chuck Duckett asked to delay a vote in order to have more time to vet Hannah-Jones. Then the journalism school took the decision out of the board’s hands, Stevens said.

“It is my understanding that Dean Susan King elected to pursue a fixed-term appointment that did not come back to the University Affairs Committee, as none of them ever do,” Stevens said at a virtual press conference on Thursday. “Nikole Hannah-Jones agreed to a fixed-term faculty position. We will be welcoming her to the Hussman School faculty as a Knight Distinguished Chair this fall.”

The full board never took up the issue, Stevens said, because the chancellor and provost never recommended it to them.

Mimi Chapman, chair of the school’s faculty, said that is “de facto false.”

“No file goes to the board of trustees from this campus unless the provost is recommending them for tenure,” Chapman said. “So this idea that the board didn’t have an action to take because it never came to them is not true. They had an action to take and they took an action by delaying it. That’s really important to understand. If he believes that the board didn’t have an action to take because the provost had never made a recommendation, that says to me that he doesn’t even understand the process. By the provost sending her name to them as a candidate for tenure, the campus recommended her, including the provost.”

Stevens’s account of events also contradicts statements by Susan King, dean of the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media. In interviews with Policy Watch and a statement to the faculty, King said she did not understand why Hannah-Jones was not approved for tenure. The decision not to move her application forward was disappointing and could harm the school’s reputation and recruiting efforts, she said.

Board of Trustees members confirmed to Policy Watch this week that opposition at the Board of Trustees level led Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz and the school’s provost to find a “work around” that would prevent a board vote and the political conflict it could cause. Those board member asked not to be identified so they could discuss a confidential personnel process.

“The journalism school did not make this decision, and they did not intervene in the process while the board was still in the vetting process and just needed more time,” a board member said Thursday’s virtual press conference. “What happened is certain board members made it clear that this would not pass. [Stevens] and the chancellor are trying to pass the buck now to the journalism school, but they both know she had the support and recommendation of everybody except these board members and it is about politics, not credentials.”

Chapman said Thursday’s press conference satisfied no one.

“There are a lot of conversations going on and not just with the faculty,” she said. “They’re going on with alumni, they’e going on with many people who have been very interested in this university for a long time. There are many people who are terribly upset about this situation.”

On Thursday the National Association of Black Journalists issued a statement denouncing the board’s inaction on tenure for Hannah-Jones.

“The failure to offer Hannah-Jones tenure with her appointment as a Knight Chair is the latest in the history of unfair treatment of Black women in academia, who are often denied promotion despite exceptional work,” said NABJ Academic Representative Jarrad Henderson. “It also further discourages all journalists of color who are hoping to transition into the academy for the benefit of the institutions we believe in. The board of trustees’ decision to not take action on approving Hannah-Jones’s tenure, is a step backward for academia. We stand with UNC Faculty, and call on the university’s leadership ‘to reaffirm its commitment to the university, its faculty, and time-honored norms and procedures, and its endorsed values of diversity, equity, and inclusion.”

As Policy Watch has reported, conservative groups objected to Hannah-Jones’s hire because of their opposition to her work, much of which examines the issue of race in America. They particularly object to her Pulitzer Prize winning work on The 1619 Project, a sprawling long-form journalism project developed by Hannah-Jones that examines the legacy of slavery in America. Board of Trustee members confirmed to Policy Watch that political objections to Hannah-Jones’s work was at the root of board members’ opposition to approving tenure.

“NABJ has reached out to the university to determine their reason for failing to grant tenure to Nikole,” said NABJ President Dorothy Tucker in Thursday’s statement. “If the speculations are true, then we denounce any decision to deny a distinguished journalist tenure because she simply did her job by reporting facts about slavery in America. The university would be sending a message to its students that it does not support press freedom and that seeking the truth and reporting it is not a pillar it believes should be a part of our profession, and that the work of Black journalists, or any journalist, to expose the ills of slavery and its impact on America is unmerited.”

On Thursday Hannah-Jones took to Twitter to thank those who have supported her

“I have been overwhelmed by all the support you all have shown me,” Hannah-Jones said. “It has truly fortified my spirit and my resolve. You all know that I will OK. But this fight is bigger than me, and I will try my best not to let you down.

Policy Watch intern Kyle Ingram, a student in the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and media, contributed to this report.


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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.