Nikole Hannah-Jones Is Granted Tenure After Weekslong Dispute
The University of North Carolina’s board of trustees voted on Wednesday to grant tenure to the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones, ending a dispute that had stretched on for more than a month.
Nine board members voted in favor of tenure for Ms. Hannah-Jones and four against during a special meeting on the campus in Chapel Hill, which some trustees attended via Zoom.
After the vote was in, Gene Davis, the board’s vice chairman, said that in granting the tenure, “this board reaffirms that our university puts its highest values first.” He added, “We welcome Nikole Hannah-Jones back to Chapel Hill.”
Ms. Hannah-Jones, a correspondent for The New York Times Magazine who earned a master’s degree from U.N.C. in 2003, had accepted a position as the Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism at the university’s Hussman School of Journalism and was expected to start July 1.
Her appointment drew a swift backlash from conservatives who took issue with her involvement in the 1619 Project, a multimedia series from The Times Magazine that re-examined the legacy of slavery in the United States. Ms. Hannah-Jones won a Pulitzer Prize in 2020 for her introductory essay.
The U.N.C. board had not held a vote on whether to give Ms. Hannah-Jones tenure during at least two meetings since her appointment last year, effectively denying her request for tenure, despite recommendations from the Hussman School dean and faculty, as well as the university’s provost and chancellor.
Previous Knight Chairs at the university received tenure. Ms. Hannah-Jones had been offered a five-year contract, with an opportunity for tenure review.
U.N.C. students, alumni and staff, as well as prominent cultural figures and academics, had criticized the board’s lack of action and repeatedly called on the trustees to approve the tenure application.
As the debate went on, Ms. Hannah-Jones received the support of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, a major donor to the university. The foundation’s chief executive, Richard E. Besser, sent a letter to the board chairman, Richard Stevens, on June 3, encouraging the trustees to “support the appointment of Ms. Hannah-Jones with full tenure privileges.”
On May 27, Ms. Hannah-Jones said in a statement that she had retained legal counsel and was considering filing a discrimination suit.
“I had no desire to bring turmoil or a political firestorm to the university that I love, but I am obligated to fight back against a wave of antidemocratic suppression that seeks to prohibit the free exchange of ideas, silence Black voices and chill free speech,” she said in the statement, which was issued by one of the law firms representing her, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund.
In a June 21 letter, her legal team informed the university that she would not join the faculty without tenure. The letter said Ms. Hannah-Jones, after signing her fixed-term contract, had learned of “political interference and influence from a powerful donor,” which she believed had contributed to the failure of the board to vote on the matter.
The “powerful donor” was apparently Walter E. Hussman Jr., the Arkansas newspaper publisher after whom the journalism school is named. In emails to university leaders, Mr. Hussman, who has pledged $25 million to the school, had expressed concerns about certain aspects of the 1619 Project and Ms. Hannah-Jones’s hiring.
But in an interview with The Times in June, Mr. Hussman said that, despite his misgivings, he did not want to influence the board’s decision. He added that the outcome of the matter would not affect his donations to the university.
The board of trustees reports to the university system’s board of governors, whose members are appointed by the Republican-controlled state legislature. Six of the 13 trustees are scheduled to reach the end of their terms on July 1.
A group of students, led by the campus’s Black Student Movement, showed up at the meeting on Wednesday in support of Ms. Hannah-Jones. U.N.C. Police officers were captured on video pushing some students away from the meeting room, in the Carolina Inn.
After the video was posted online, Ms. Hannah-Jones said on Twitter: “It should have been communicated how this meeting would go, that tenure proceedings are always held in closed session, and an attempt made to de-escalate. Instead Black students were shoved and punched because they were confused about the process. This is not right.”
Julia Clark, the vice president of the Black Student Movement, said in an interview that about 75 were in the group.
“The board put the police on Black students like dogs, literally put them on us like dogs, in front of media,” Ms. Clark said. She added that an officer had punched her “so hard that my mask fell off.”
“This university has repeatedly disrespected us, and they have shown us they don’t care about Black lives,” she continued.
U.N.C. did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the episode.
In remarks after the vote, Mr. Davis, the board’s vice chair, said U.N.C. endorsed “academic freedom, open and rigorous debate, and scholarly inquiry and constructive disagreement.”
“Our university is not a place to cancel people or ideas,” he said. “Neither is it a place for judging people or calling them names like ‘woke’ or ‘racist.’ Our university is better than that. Our great nation is better than that.”
Kevin M. Guskiewicz, the university’s chancellor, said the board’s vote was significant.
“Professor Hannah-Jones will add great value to our university,” he said. “Our students are eager to learn from her, and we are ready to welcome her to the Carolina faculty as soon as possible.”
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