PW Special Report: After Conservative Criticism, UNC Backs Down From Offering Acclaimed Journalist Tenured PositionBreaking News
tags: University of North Carolina, academic freedom, 1619 Project, Nikole Hannah-Jones
Journalism school will instead offer Nikole Hannah-Jones a fixed five-year contract
In her career in journalism, Nikole Hannah-Jones has been awarded the Pulitzer Prize and a MacArthur Fellowship “Genius Grant.” But despite support from the UNC-Chapel Hill chancellor and faculty, she won’t be getting a tenured teaching position at her alma mater. At least not yet.
As Policy Watch reported last week, UNC-Chapel Hill’s Hussman School of Journalism and Media pursued Hannah-Jones for its Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism, a tenured professorship. But following political pressure from conservatives who object to her work on “The 1619 Project” for The New York Times Magazine, the school changed its plan to offer her tenure — which amounts to a career-long appointment. Instead, she will start July 1 for a fixed five-year term as Professor of the Practice, with the option of being reviewed for tenure at the end of that time period.
“It’s disappointing, it’s not what we wanted and I am afraid it will have a chilling effect,” said Susan King, dean of UNC Hussman.
“The 1619 Project” is a long-form journalism undertaking that, as the Pulitzer Center put it, “challenges us to reframe U.S. history by marking the year when the first enslaved Africans arrived on Virginia soil as our nation’s foundational date.” Hannah-Jones, who is Black, conceived of the project and was among multiple staff writers, photographers and editors who put it together.
The project sought to spur a reexamination of how America teaches and celebrates its own history. It caused debate among academics, journalists, even within The New York Times itself. Criticisms of its accuracy by some prominent historians led to edits and clarifications, but Hannah-Jones and the Times stand by the project, the introductory essay to which won her the 2020 Pulitzer for commentary.
Last summer, Hannah-Jones went through the rigorous tenure process at UNC, King said. Hannah-Jones submitted a package King said was as well reviewed as any King had ever seen. Hannah-Jones had enthusiastic support from faculty and the tenure committee, with the process going smoothly every step of the way — until it reached the UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees.
The board reviews and approves tenure applications. It chose not to take action on approving Hannah-Jones’s tenure.
“I’m not sure why and I’m not sure if that’s ever happened before,” King said.
UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz stood up for Hannah-Jones before the board, King said, telling the members she was such a strong candidate that he was willing to bring her on in a fixed-term position with the opportunity to be approved for tenure after five years.
That’s a departure from the school’s usual practice. Knight Chairs, sponsored by the Knight Foundation, are important and influential journalists who bring their expertise to the classroom at some of the nation’s most respected universities. While continuing their work in journalism, Knight Chairs offer students the perspective they’ve gained through their experience in the industry.
Not all Knight Chair professors are tenured. But since UNC began working with the foundation in 1980, all of those teaching at the flagship Chapel Hill campus have been. Fixed-term positions, like the one now being offered to Hannah-Jones, do not need board approval.
“It was a work-around,” a UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees member told Policy Watch this week.