PW Exclusive: Nikole Hannah-Jones will not join UNC-Chapel Hill faculty without tenure

By: - June 22, 2021 4:53 pm

Nikole Hannah-Jones will not join the faculty at UNC-Chapel Hill without tenure, according to a letter from her legal team to the university this week.

According to the letter, Hannah-Jones will not begin her position as Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism on July 1, as scheduled, and will not take the position without tenure.

The letter makes clear that Hannah-Jones has not withdrawn her application for tenure and does not intend to do so.

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. She was then 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.

Nikole Hannah-Jones (Bell Tower photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)S

Sources on the board told Policy Watch 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.

In their letter, Hannah-Jones’s legal team argues information was withheld from her when she signed her fixed-term contract with the school.

Since signing the fixed-term contract, Ms. Hannah-Jones has come to learn that political interference and influence from a powerful donor contributed to the Board of Trustees’ failure to consider her tenure application,” they wrote. “In light of this information, Ms. Hannah-Jones cannot trust that the University would consider her tenure application in good faith during the period of the fixed-term contract. Such good faith consideration for tenure was understood to be an essential element of the fixed-term contract when Ms. Hannah-Jones agreed to enter into it. In light of the information which has come to her attention since that time, she cannot begin employment with the University without the protection and security of tenure.”

The letter also lays out the likely legal thrust of Hannah-Jones’s argument in a threatened federal lawsuit over the board’s decision not to consider her for tenure.

The inferior terms of employment offered to Ms. Hannah-Jones in the fixed-term contract resulted from viewpoint discrimination in violation of the freedom of speech and expression, secured by the United States and North Carolina Constitution; race and sex discrimination and retaliation in violation of federal and North Carolina state law; unlawful political influence in violation of North Carolina state law; and other unlawful grounds,” her legal team wrote. “Under these circumstances, any appointment of Ms. Hannah-Jones without tenure is unacceptable.”

Controversy over the board’s failure to hold a tenure vote led to widespread condemnation from students, faculty, alumni and some of the school’s largest donors and funding partners.

The faculty tenure committee re-submitted Hannah-Jones’s tenure application to the board with the support of the school’s provost and Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz. But despite  a looming federal discrimination lawsuit from Hannah-Jones, the board has taken no action.

Two members of the board of trustees spoke with Policy Watch Tuesday, requesting that their names be withheld so that they could discuss confidential personnel matters. Both said they have not heard anything about a vote of the full board on the tenure issue. That frustrates members of the board who would like to see an up-or-down vote on the issue as pressure mounts on the school from students, faculty, alumni and funders.

Last week the Carolina Black Caucus reported 70 percent of its members said they are considering leaving the university.

The school has lost multiple high profile Black recruits, faculty and staff members since the controversy began. Professors are also reporting they have spoken with Black students at the undergraduate and graduate level who have decided not to return to the university as a result of the university’s actions in the Hannah-Jones case.

“At the end of the month the tenure of some board members is up and some new ones are going to come onto the board,” one trustee said. “I think they just want to let that happen, so they don’t have to deal with it. But I think that strategy could cost the school a good new faculty member, it is costing us faculty members right now who are leaving over all of this, and it is damaging the reputation of the school.”

Another trustee said some on the board and in leadership at the UNC System level seemed to think “they could have their cake and eat it too” by having Hannah-Jones begin in July without tenure. They could then argue that she had already begun teaching at the school and so the controversy was overblown, the trustee said. While avoiding public discussion of the controversy and his part in it, UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz has repeatedly said he is glad Hannah-Jones will begin at the school July 1.

“But this letter makes it clear she’s not going to begin the job that way and give them what they want on that,” the trustee said. “They want her to take the job under different and lesser conditions than her white predecessors did, and I think continuing to push that is dangerous for the university’s reputation and it’s a bad legal strategy. If we don’t deal with this sooner rather than later we are going to be fighting a legal fight over it while we have Black students and faculty leaving the university in large numbers, which we are already seeing. How do we think we are going to recruit top students and faculty under these conditions?”

On Saturday Mimi Chapman, chair of the school’s faculty, shared an open letter to the Carolina community. In the letter she confirmed, through her own conversations with school administration, much of the reporting on the controversy the Board of Trustees and Guskiewicz have either not addressed publicly or have contradicted without evidence since Policy Watch first reported the board’s inaction on Hannah-Jones’s tenure.

“Despite calls for action from the Faculty Executive Committee, from individual faculty members, from the Council of Chairs, from alumnae, from donors, and from funders to act without delay on the tenure case of Nikole Hannah-Jones, thus far, the Board of Trustees, to which our University is entrusted, has remained stubbornly silent,” Chapman said. “The reputational threat to our University grows by the day and we remain in the headlines for all the wrong reasons.”

“I ask that the campus community speak loudly and with one voice,” Chapman wrote in the open letter. “If you or your department or school has not yet spoken out, now is the time to do so. We need every dean and every department chair on this campus to make a statement, send it to the BOT, and put it on your websites; we need student groups, particularly those that espouse free speech and thought diversity to speak up; athletes and coaches, we need you to take a stand; and concerned citizens who want your children’s degrees from UNC to continue to stand for excellence, please call your representatives and write to your local newspapers. Make sure that all such communications are conveyed to the Board of Trustees.”

“If outside bodies, in this case the BOT, without subject matter expertise are the arbiters of faculty scholarship, all faculty members run the risk of being punished for work that questions the status quo, threatens some outside interest, or makes people uncomfortable,” Chapman wrote. “Such a path takes us back to times when scholars from Socrates to Galileo were punished for their ideas. That is a path where light and liberty die. Don’t let it. Use your voice. Keep going. Stand strong.”

Departments across the university have responded to Chapman’s call. Student Body President Lamar Richards, who also serves as a member of the board of trustees, has strongly and publicly advocated for the board to vote on tenure for Hannah-Jones. On Wednesday evening he will hold the first meeting of the Campus President’s Council, where the Hannah-Jones controversy is expected to be discussed. Guskiewicz has been invited to that meeting.

The Black Student Movement is promoting a student rally on the issue outside the campus’s South Building, home to its administrative offices, on Friday.

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