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Students And Faculty Protest UNC Chapel Hill Trustees' Denial Of Tenure For Nikole Hannah-Jones

Liz Schlemmer
Protesters Vanessa Amankwaa, a graduate student; Michelle Itano, an assistant professor; and Betty Curry hold signs outside a UNC Chapel Hill Board of Trustees meeting.

Protesters stood on the sidelines of a UNC Chapel Hill Board of Trustees meeting Thursday to oppose the Board’s denial of tenure for a high-profile hire at the university’s journalism school.

Nikole Hannah-Jones is the creator of the 1619 project, a longform story for The New York Times Magazine that argues the year when white Europeans first brought enslaved Africans to colonies that became the United States is a seminal date in U.S. History. She won the Pulitzer Prize for commentary for the project.

The 1619 Project has drawn criticism from conservatives nationally and in North Carolina. The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) has cited it as motivation for model legislation making its way through state legislatures to limit the teaching of critical race theory in K-12 public school classrooms.

The university announced last month that the Hussman School of Journalism & Media was hiring Hannah-Jones as its Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism, a position endowed by the The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

WUNC confirmed, as first reported by NC Policy Watch, that despite earning faculty approval for tenure, Hannah-Jones is instead being offered a 5-year contract with the opportunity to seek tenure later.

Liz Schlemmer
UNC Chapel Hill graduate student Vanessa Amankwaa protests the UNC Chapel Hill Board of Trustees' decision not to offer tenure to Nikole Hannah-Jones upon hire, despite a faculty recommendation.

Vanessa Amankwaa is a master's student at UNC Chapel Hill studying public health. She went to the Board of Trustees meeting to oppose the lack of tenure for Hannah-Jones.

“I just feel like Black women already have to go through so many hurdles in life in general and in academia it's a whole different ballpark,” Amankwaa said. “To have someone be a MacArthur Fellow as well as a Pulitzer prize winner and not be granted tenure is just ridiculous and I had to come here to protest it today.”

UNC Chapel Hill Associate Professor Tori Ekstrand was there to show support after voting alongside other journalism school faculty to put Hannah-Jones’ recommendation for tenure forward to a university committee.

“We’re frustrated and stunned,” Ekstrand said. “I think for myself. I’m looking for answers.”

The Board of Trustees has not publicly addressed why members did not act on the tenure recommendation from faculty. NC Policy Watch reported that, according to an unnamed trustee, the decision to pull back was the result of political pressure and some board members had concerns about Hannah-Jones’ academic credentials.

Hannah-Jones has a master’s degree from the Hussman School of Journalism & Media and has significant professional experience, writing for ProPublica and the New York Times Magazine after beginning her career as an education reporter at the Raleigh News & Observer.

Another recent Knight Chair at the Hussman School, Penny Abernathy, was offered tenure upon hire in 2008. Her academic credentials included an MBA and an MS in journalism from Columbia University.

Hannah-Jones is set to begin teaching as a professor of practice and a Knight Chair at UNC Chapel Hill in July.

“While I am disappointed that the appointment is without tenure, there is no doubt in anyone’s mind that she will be a star faculty member,” said the journalism school’s dean Susan King in a written statement. “I am more than delighted that she will be here at UNC, teaching our next generation of journalists.”

“She is arguably the preeminent journalist of her generation,” King said.

Editor's Note: The Dean of UNC's Journalism School Susan King is a member of WUNC’s Board of Directors, which is appointed by the UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees. WUNC maintains editorial independence in all news coverage, including stories involving UNC.
Copyright 2021 North Carolina Public Radio. To see more, visit North Carolina Public Radio.

Liz Schlemmer is WUNC's Education Policy Reporter, a fellowship position supported by the A.J. Fletcher Foundation. She has an M.A. from the UNC Chapel Hill School of Media & Journalism and a B.A. in history and anthropology from Indiana University.