UNC-Chapel Hill reaches settlement with Nikole Hannah-Jones, avoiding lawsuit

By: - July 15, 2022 1:38 pm

UNC-Chapel Hill has reached a settlement with acclaimed journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones over the failed attempt to hire the her last year, avoiding a potential lawsuit.

Hannah-Jones, a Pulitzer Prize-winner and author of the best-selling 1619 Projectwas courted by the university’s journalism school for a Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism. Policy Watch broke the story of how political pressure and donor influence led to her tenure vote being bottled up in a UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees committee, preventing the hire under the conditions by which other Knight chairs were hired at the school.

The controversy that followed led to national headlines, protests and threatened boycotts of the school.  As details emerged the student, staff, faculty and alumni pressure led the board of trustees to hold a public, up-or-down tenure vote, but Hannah-Jones rejected the offer to instead take a similar position at Howard University, raising more than $20 million to create the Center for Journalism and Democracy there.  The silence of the university’s administration and behavior of the journalism school’s namesake donor, Walter Hussman, made it impossible for her to take the UNC position, Hannah-Jones told Policy Watch.

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

The settlement, announced Friday, is for less than $75,000. That means Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz was able to approve it without the approval of the UNC Board of Governors, whose overwhelmingly conservative political appointees are appointed by the N.C. General Assembly’s GOP majority.  The settlement puts to an end the threat of legal action Hannah-Jones said she was still contemplating in the aftermath of the controversy.

The settlement  allows Hannah-Jones to concentrate on her important work at Howard, said Janai S. Nelson, president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, in a statement Friday.

“She looks forward to continuing her professional work committed to using the power of investigative journalism to expose the truth about the manifestations of racism in our society and training the next generation of aspiring journalists to do the same at her academic home of Howard University,” Nelson said in the statement.

UNC-Chapel Hill’s reputation has been tainted by the scandal, leading to problems with recruiting highly-sought faculty of color. The university’s journalism school’s accreditation was downgraded in May and the episode played a part in a recent condemnation from the American Association of University Professors.

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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.