The Pulse

UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees grant tenure to Nikole Hannah-Jones

By: - June 30, 2021 7:22 pm

The UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees approved tenure for acclaimed journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones on Wednesday, ending a month-long saga that has outraged students, faculty and journalists across the country.

In a public vote, the board approved Hannah-Jones’s tenure application 9-4 after a closed session of nearly three hours.

Voting “no” were members Haywood Cochrane, Allie Rae McCullen, John Preyer and David Boliek.

Hannah-Jones issued a written statement shortly after the vote, leaving it unclear if she would accept the position.

“I want to acknowledge the tremendous outpouring of support I have received from students, faculty, colleagues, and the general public over the last month – including the young people who showed up today at the Board of Trustees meeting, putting themselves at physical risk,” Hannah-Jones wrote. “I am honored and grateful for and inspired by you all. I know that this vote would not have occurred without you.”

“Today’s outcome and the actions of the past month are about more than just me,” Hannah-Jones wrote. “This fight is about ensuring the journalistic and academic freedom of Black writers, researchers, teachers, and students. We must ensure that our work is protected and able to proceed free from the risk of repercussions, and we are not there yet. These last weeks have been very challenging and difficult and I need to take some time to process all that has occurred and determine what is the best way forward.”

Board Vice Chair Gene Davis spoke briefly after the vote, to occasional snickers and jeers from demonstrators who had urged the board to approve tenure well before this week.

“Let me be very clear,” Davis said. “Our mottos is ‘Lux, Libertas’ — light and liberty. We remain committed to being a light shining brightly on the hill. We embrace and endorse academic freedom, open and rigorous debate and scholarly inquiry.”

“Our University is not the place to cancel people or ideas,” Davis said. “Neither is it place for judging people and calling them names like ‘woke’ or ‘racist.’ Our university is better than that.”

Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz said he was glad the matter had finally been resolved.

“Professor Hannah-Jones will add great value to our university,” Guskiewicz said. “Our students are eager to learn from her and we are ready to welcome her to the Carolina faculty as soon as possible.”

Nikole Hannah-Jones

Governor Roy Cooper also weighed in shortly after the vote, praising the decision.

“UNC Trustees did the right thing today by offering tenure to award winning journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones,” Cooper said in a written statement. “Our students will benefit from exploring thought-provoking issues and our campus and our campus reputation will be enhanced helping us keep and attract a diverse array of acclaimed scientists, researchers, doctors and scholars.”

Walter Hussman, the UNC-Chapel Hill alum and Arkansas newspaper magnate, released his own statement Wednesday. Hussman’s $25 million donation to the journalism school led to it being named after him, but his behind-the-scenes lobbying against Hannah-Jones’s hire sparked controversy.

In his statement Wednesday, Hussman reiterated that he merely expressed concerns about the school hiring Hannah-Jones and did not intend to infringe on academic freedom.

“I respect that academic freedom requires that the authority for hiring faculty rests solely with the University,” Hussman wrote. “The University has now voted to grant tenure to Ms. Nikole Hannah Jones. I look forward to meeting her and discussing journalism. Our plan is to continue to support the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media in advocating for the core values.”

In her own statement Susan King, Dean of the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media, thanked the community for rallying around Hannah-Jones — and the journalism school — as they pushed for a vote from the board of trustees.

“It has taken longer than I imagined, but I am deeply appreciative that the board has voted in favor of our school’s recommendation to tenure Nikole Hannah-Jones as the Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism,” King wrote. “I knew that when the board reviewed her tenure dossier and realized the strength of her teaching, service and professional vision they would be moved to grant tenure.”

“She is a journalist’s journalist, a teacher’s teacher and a woman of substance with a voice of consequence,” King wrote. “Hannah-Jones will make our school better with her presence. She will deepen the University’s commitment to intellectual integrity and to access for all.”

“A thank you to the greater Carolina community of students, faculty, staff and alumni who have stood by our school, the centrality of journalism to democracy, the ideals of the University — and to Hannah-Jones herself,” King wrote. “This outpouring of support has reinforced the very principles of the nation’s first public university and will carry us forward.”

“Today, UNC’s motto — Lux Libertas — is not simply two Latin words,” King wrote. “Light and liberty define the ideas that have guided the University through turbulence since 1789 and will continue to define us going forward.”

That ongoing turbulence was on display Wednesday as UNC-Chapel Hill police shoved student demonstrators,  forcibly removing them from meeting ahead of the closed-session discussion of on tenure for Nikole Hannah-Jones. They also ejected demonstrators from the building during the closed session, keeping them in the parking lot as temperatures topped 90 degrees.

The demonstrators — a large group of faculty, alumni and student activists — had gathered in support of Hannah-Jones. When the board moved to go into closed session, several demonstrators refused to leave. Some mocked board members and Guskiewicz.

“Y’all are an embarrassment and I am disgusted to be a student at this university,” Taliajah Vann, president of UNC’s Black Student Movement said to the board. 

After several minutes, police began to shove the demonstrators out of the board room. BSM’s Vice President, Julia Clark, said one of the officers punched her in the face. Clark later retweeted a video of the scene filmed by Spectrum News which appears to show the punch. 

Going into closed session while discussing legal and personnel matters is standard procedure for the board, both to legally protect the private information of job or tenure candidates and to preserve privileged conversations with attorneys.

As Policy Watch has reported, Hannah-Jones, acclaimed journalist and creator of the 1619 Project, was not granted tenure after being hired as the Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalist at UNC — a position that has historically come with tenure upon hire. 

Outside the boardroom, demonstrators spoke while police blocked the entrance to the meeting. 

“What have we done to you?” Vann said. “Did we enter this space violently? Were we screaming? Were we unruly? And where are we? Outside. Because they don’t exist to serve us, they exist to serve them and they expect us to serve them.” 

Some of them criticized UNC Student Body President Lamar Richards for voting “yes” on the motion to go into closed session. 

Last week, Richards petitioned the board to hold a special meeting to vote on tenure for Hannah-Jones. 

A few minutes later, Richards called one of the demonstrators and addressed the crowd on speaker phone, saying that Hannah-Jones herself had requested the board discuss her tenure in closed session. 

He later put out a thread on Twitter clarifying that the decision to go into closed session was not necessarily requested by Hannah-Jones, but made to protect her regardless. 

After speaking with Richards, the demonstrators moved outside. 

Hannah-Jones later clarified on Twitter that her legal team did not request the closed session, but that it was normal procedure to do so. However, she said, this should have been explained to the demonstrators beforehand.

She also requested the names of the individuals who were shoved out of the meeting by police.

Following the board’s adjournment, demonstrators began to speak on a bullhorn. 

“I don’t want you ever to say that this University is great when the only great thing about this university is standing right here,” Clark said, motioning to the demonstrators. “Everything else in this room has made his university unbearable, traumatic and toxic for every Black student that’s been here.” 

“You sat by and watched while your students were beaten,” she continued. 

Board members quickly began filing out once the demonstrators started speaking, but Davis and Guskiewicz remained. Police swarmed around the demonstrators but stopped short of physically removing them. 

Davis agreed to meet with the BSM next week to discuss their demands for racial equity on campus.

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