In April, the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill announced acclaimed journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones would join the Hussman School of Journalism and Media as the Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism. Earlier this month, however, it was revealed she was declined tenure with the esteemed position by the university’s board of trustees. According to the NC Policy Watch, Hannah-Jones was offered a 5-year contract.
Since the denial of her tenure by UNC, the 1619 Project pioneer has received an outpour of support. Academics, artists, athletes, and authors alike have issued a letter via The Root to speak out and stand in solidarity with the Peabody- and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist. More than 250 public figures in total signed the statement, which called the decision to deny Hannah-Jones tenure “egregious.”
Authored by notable writers and academics, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Glenda Elizabeth Gilmore, and Martha S. Jones, the powerful letter celebrates Hannah-Jones and calls for resistance.
“While the denial of tenure is egregious, it is not an isolated incident. The same anti-democratic thinking that blocked Hannah-Jones’ appointment at her alma mater has also fueled efforts in state and local legislatures to ban the teaching of histories of slavery and its legacies through the 1619 Project. We call on all people of conscience to decry this growing wave of repression and to encourage a recommitment to the free exchange of ideas in our schools, workplaces, legislatures, and communities,” the letter stated.
It continued, “We will cheer Nikole Hannah-Jones on when she steps into her classroom at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill this fall. But we will not turn away from the regrettable circumstances under which she will do so. The University’s Board of Trustees has failed to uphold the first-order values of academic freedom and the free exchange of ideas .”
Among those who signed the statement include filmmakers Ava DuVernay, Ryan Coogler, and Barry Jenkins, NBA Players Chris Paul and Carmelo Anthony, political analyst and journalist Joy Reid, writer Lena Waithe, and actress Thandiwe Newton.
In a statement released by UNC Hussman faculty, staff revealed shared disbelief in the decision and called out the lack of consistency for Hannah-Jones and the previous chairs.
“The failure to offer Hannah-Jones tenure with her appointment as a Knight chair unfairly moves the goalposts and violates long-standing norms and established processes relating to tenure and promotion at UNC-Chapel Hill. The two immediately preceding Knight chairs in our School received tenure upon appointment,” said the memo which was signed by 46 journalism professors and 300 additional UNC faculty members.
“We 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. The university must tenure Nikole Hannah-Jones as the Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism.”
According to Raleigh News & Observer, the decision is officially back up for consideration by the university’s Board of Trustees. Trustee Chuck Duckett informed the outlet he received the re-submission from the university’s Appointments, Personnel, and Tenure Committee on Tuesday. Although her tenure candidacy has been resubmitted, it does not guarantee another vote. The next meeting is scheduled for mid-July after Hannah-Jones’ July 1 start date as the Knight Chair.
The outlet reported Hannah-Jones may take legal action against the university. Attorneys from the NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund, Inc., Levy Ratner PC, and Ferguson, Chambers & Sumter issued a letter reminding North Carolina lawmakers of their legal responsibility to hold records relating to the decision.
The letter says the legal team represents Hannah-Jones “in connection with the failure of the Board of Trustees (the “Board”) to consider and approve her application for tenure.”
“U.N.C. has unlawfully discriminated against Ms. Hannah-Jones based on the content of her journalism and scholarship and because of her race,” the statement said. “We are evaluating all available legal recourse to fully vindicate Ms. Hannah-Jones’s rights, including possibly initiating a federal action against UNC, the Board, and/or affiliated entities and individuals.”
Hannah-Jones shared a statement with the Raleigh News & Observer explaining her reason for obtaining legal counsel is to “ensure the academic and journalistic freedom of Black writers is protected to the full extent of the law and to seek redress for the University of North Carolina’s adverse actions against me.”
She shared a message of gratitude for all support via Twitter.
I have been overwhelmed by all the support you all have shown me. 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.
— Ida Bae Wells (@nhannahjones) May 20, 2021
University spokesperson Joanne Peters Denny said the following in a statement to CNN once the decision to not grant Hannah-Jones tenure became public news:
“The details of individual faculty hiring processes are personal protected information. The university is proud to host a Knight Chair at our leading Hussman School of Journalism and Media and looks forward to welcoming Nikole Hannah-Jones to campus.”