Nikole Hannah-Jones Finally Has Been Granted Tenure. But the Damage Is Already Done.Breaking News
tags: University of North Carolina, academic freedom, tenure, 1619 Project, Nikole Hannah-Jones
Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones was granted tenure by the University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill Board of Trustees on Wednesday evening, the latest twist in a monthslong saga that has led to bitter debates about the influence of big donors on hiring decisions, the increasingly partisan boards that govern public universities, and the conservative freakout over critical race theory.
It is still not clear, however, whether Hannah-Jones will join the faculty at UNC–Chapel Hill, where she received a master’s degree in 2003. Her start date was originally set to be Thursday; on Thursday morning, the journalism school dean, Susan King, told me that Hannah-Jones hadn’t indicated whether she’d decided to accept the teaching position, and that she deserved some time to let everything sink in. “Nikole Hannah-Jones isn’t just a great journalist—she’s a once-in-a-generation journalist,” King said.
In late April, the journalism school announced that the creator of the New York Times‘ award-winning and controversial 1619 Project would become the Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism, noting that Knight chair professorships “are designed to bring top professionals to classrooms to teach and mentor students.” Hannah-Jones, the winner of a MacArthur “genius grant” in 2017, had become increasingly involved with the school in recent years, culminating in her induction into the NC Media & Journalism Hall of Fame earlier that month.
But almost immediately, the announcement faced stiff criticism from conservative groups, with former Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, now the president of the Young America’s Foundation, calling the appointment “shameful.” And when Hannah-Jones’ appointment came up for review in May before the Board of Trustees, it chose not to make a tenure decision—leaving the journalism school to offer Hannah-Jones a five-year fixed-term position with the opportunity for a future tenure review. “It’s disappointing, it’s not what we wanted, and I am afraid it will have a chilling effect,” King told NC Policy Watch at the time.
In the end, Hannah-Jones and her supporters won out. At the same time, the reputational damage done to the university by the trustees’ machinations, Hussman’s meddling, and the administration’s relative silence will be felt for years. But it doesn’t seem like the Board of Governors is all that concerned: Just last week, it declined to reappoint law professor Eric Muller to the UNC Press board, even while green-lighting his two colleagues up for reappointment. Sources told NC Policy Watch that Muller was singled out for his public statements on the school’s handling of the Silent Sam fiasco and broader issues regarding UNC–Chapel Hill’s failure to properly reckon with its racial history.
As one member of the Board of Governors said, “They’re standing in the way of the system and how it usually works.”