PW exclusive: Deadline set for lawsuit in Nikole Hannah-Jones tenure controversy

By: - May 29, 2021 10:42 am
[divider] [/divider] The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has until Friday to offer tenure to acclaimed journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones or face a federal lawsuit, according to documents obtained by Policy Watch.

On Thursday, attorneys with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and the law firms Levy Ratner and Ferguson Chambers & Sumter sent a letter to Charles Marshall, the school’s vice chancellor and general counsel. The letter laid out Hannah-Jones’ case and demanded UNC-Chapel Hill make good on what they said was its initial offer of a tenured position for Hannah-Jones as the Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism at the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media.

“We intend to bring litigation to vindicate Ms. Hannah-Jones’ rights under federal and state law,” the attorneys wrote. “This letter is to demand that UNC take immediate action to remedy its conduct to avoid suit by making an unconditional offer to Ms. Hannah-Jones of a tenured appointment as full professor no later than June 4, 2021.”

The four page letter, published below, said “UNC’s actions to effectively deny tenure to Ms. Hannah-ones, in contravention of multiple written and verbal representations to her, constitute viewpoint discrimination and race-based employment discrimination and retaliation.”

As Policy Watch first reported last week, the board failed to approve tenure for Hannah-Jones, a winner of the prestigious George Polk and  George Foster Peabody awards and Pulitzer Prize for her 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, Stevens 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.

Stevens also said neither UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz nor Provost Bob Blouin recommended Hannah-Jones for tenure. UNC Chapel Hill Faculty Chair Mimi Chapman called that “de facto false,” as Hannah-Jones’s tenure application could not have gone from faculty level to the trustee committee level without their recommendation.

This week, in the of wake 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. That move came after a public demand from Lamar Richards, UNC-Chapel Hill student body president and member of the board of trustees, that the board hold a vote on tenure for Hannah-Jones.

As Policy Watch reported this week, Hannah-Jones hired legal counsel and announced she was considering a federal action for discrimination.

The letter provides a timeline of events that occurred from Hannah-Jones’ recruitment to the board’s decision not to hold a vote on her tenure application.

From the letter:

“As a UNC alumna, Ms. Hannah-Jones was receptive when approached by Dean Susan King about the prospect of joining the faculty of the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media as a Knight Chair. Ms. Hannah-ones was told more than once, in writing, that she would be hired by UNC as a full professor with tenure in her position as Knight Chair. Indeed, every Knight Chair at UNC since 1980 has been granted tenure upon appointment, many of whom, like Ms. Hannah-Ones, were practicing journalists at the time of their appointments. In reliance upon the terms offer to her, Ms. Hannah-Jones accepted employment as Knight Chair for Race and Investigative Journalism and took concrete steps to set up a residence in North Carolina.

Upon review of Ms. Hannah-Jones’s completed tenure application, the School of Journalism’s review committee unanimously recommended tenure for Ms. Hannah-Jones, which was approved by unanimous vote of the School of Journalism’s faculty, and also approved by the University’s review committee. Ms. Hannah-Jones was recommended for tenure not only by Dean King, but also by Provost Robert A. Blouin and Chancellor Kevin M. Guskiewicz. A vote of the Board of Trustees concerning tenure for Ms. Hannah-Jones was scheduled for November 12, 2020 and Ms. Hannah-Jones secured and furnished a residence in Chapel Hill in preparation for her employment at UNC, to begin January 2021. The Board of Trustees, however, chose not to take action on Ms. Hannah-Jones’ tenure application at its November 2020 meeting. On information and belief, the Board of Trustees’ refusal to act on a tenure application, which had been overwhelmingly approved at every level of review, including approval by the UNC Chancellor, is unusual if not unprecedented.

Following that meeting, Ms. Hannah-Jones did not receive any explanation fo the Board of Trustees’ failure to act on her tenure application. When the Trustees met again in January 2021, the Board again declined to act on her tenure application without explanation. In late February 2021, Ms. Hannah-Jones was told that she would be offered a five-year contract instead of being granted tenure. Having already made significant personal and professional arrangements to join the UNC faculty in reliance upon the promise of tenure, and without a full understanding of the reasons for this major reversal, Ms. Hannah-Jones reluctantly accepted the fixed-term contract.

It has now become apparent that the Trustees’ denial of tenure to Ms. Hannah-Jones, which breaks from UNC’s longstanding, established practice to grant tenure to Knight Chairs upon hire, was motivated by a desire to suppress her research, writing and speech related to the history and legacy of American slavery and its continuing ramifications in entrenched racial inequalities and racial injustices in America, as exemplified by the 1619 Project. UNC Officials, including individuals on the Board of Trustees, may choose to personally agree with the conservative pundits and elected officials who have been vocally hostile and antagonistic to Ms. Hannah-Jones’ professional work and achievements, but they are prohibited from furthering, promoting, or imposing their political opinion and viewpoints through officials acts on behalf of UNC. In taking an adverse employment action to chill Ms. Hannah-Jones’ expression of First Amendment protected speech, UNC has engaged in unlawful viewpoint discrimination, in violation of 42 U.S. Code § 1983, as well as federal and state law and policy. In fact, it has long been the law in North Carolina that personnel decisions must be free of political influence. See G.S.§  126-14.2. Nowhere is this more important than in the university setting, where principles of academic freedom are foundational. Here, Ms. Hannah-Jones’ work is not only protected by the principles of academic freedom but also by the principles of journalistic integrity and freedom of the press.”

The tenure controversy has already generated national headlines and intensely negative publicity for the university, with condemnations from prominent academics, artists and athletes across the country. Celebrated musicians, filmmakers, actors and literary luminaries have suggested they may decline invitations from the school and urge philanthropic foundations to reconsider supporting it as a result of what they call an attempt to “suppress free thought about racism and its historical roots.” Last week, Raleigh’s News & Observer published a two page ad bought by 1,619 UNC-Chapel Hill alumni in support of Hannah-Jones’s tenure.

“We are 1,619 University of North Carolina alumni outraged by the Board of Trustees’ failure to approve a tenured professorship for UNC aluma and founder of The 1619 Project, Nikole Hannah-Jones,” the alumni wrote in the ad. “Dismissing a list of merits that includes winning the Pulitzer Prize, Peabody Award and MacArthur “Genius” Grant is an attempt to penalize Nikole Hannah-Jones for her groundbreaking and unvarnished reporting of American history. We demand that the Board of Trustees immediately revisit this matter, grant tenure as recommended by the appropriate faculty, Dean and Provost, and restore the integrity of our university.”

If Hannah-Jones moves forward with a federal lawsuit, it could be the latest in a series of embarrassing and costly court battles for the university over its handling of political and racial issues.

In February, the UNC Board of Governors settled a lawsuit brought by DTH Media Corp., the parent company of student newspaper The Daily Tar Heel.

The paper sued the system and the UNC Board of Governors over a negotiated settlement with the NC Sons of Confederate Veterans in which the system transferred possession of the ‘Silent Sam’ Confederate statue and more than $2.5 million to the group. The lawsuit argued that the board crafted the deal in secret and presented it to the public without holding any public meetings or discussions.

That deal provided the Sons of Confederate Veterans with the money to buy the rights to the statue from the United Daughters of the Confederacy; that agreement was later invalidated by an Orange County Superior Court judge, but not before the group spent a portion of the settlement money. Questions have also been raised as to whether the UDC had the right to sell the statue.

The deal was scrapped due to opposition mounted by UNC-Chapel Hill students and alumni, who argued successfully in court against the legal team mounted by UNC-Chapel Hill and the UNC System.

As part of the settlement, documents were released that revealed high-level UNC-Chapel Hill administrators were part of negotiating the deal with the NC Sons of Confederate Veterans, despite public assurances to the contrary by the school’s chancellor. Those revelations led a faculty group at the school to call for Guskiewicz’s resignation.

Media and law experts have also pointed to another past lawsuit against the university system involving faculty tenure as a potential precedent in the Hannah-Jones matter.

Tori Ekstrand, a media law professor in the UNC Hussman school, has suggested the political opposition to Hannah-Jones’s tenure seems remarkably similar to the case of conservative UNC-Wilmington professor Mike Adams in the years-long legal fight over speech-based discrimination in which he ultimately prevailed against the university system.

“A reminder to the BOT and the UNC system that the 4th Circuit stands firmly behind academic freedom,” Ekstrand wrote, providing a link to a summary of Adams’ legal case.

“Does the UNC system remember this case?” Ekstrand wrote.

Read the entire letter from Hannah-Jones’s attorneys 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.