Trustee: Nonacademic Background Halted Hannah-Jones Tenure
Investigative journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones’ tenure application at the University of North Carolina was halted because she didn’t come from a “traditional academic-type background," and a trustee who vets the lifetime appointments wanted more time to consider her qualifications, university leaders said Thursday.
The trustee who leads the subcommittee that considers tenure applications, Charles Duckett, chose in January to postpone the review of Hannah-Jones’ submission, said Richard Stevens, the chairman of the board of trustees for the Chapel Hill campus. It was never brought before the full board for approval, and instead the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist accepted a five-year appointment to the faculty of the journalism school.
“We’re talking about a lifetime position here, so they’re not entered into lightly,” Stevens told reporters. "And it’s not unusual for a member of the board, or in particular the chair of the committee, to have questions for clarification about background, particularly candidates that don’t come from a traditional academic-type background. In this case, Chair Duckett asked for a little bit of time to be able to do that.”
Faculty members at the university's Hussman School of Journalism already slammed that reasoning in an open letter Wednesday, noting that the last two professors who held Hannah-Jones' chaired position were given tenure when appointed. They said the journalism school's strength lies in its roster of longtime professionals who worked in the industry.
The foundation that endows Hannah-Jones' position, the Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism, also urged the school to reconsider its decision.
Stevens and Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz said Hannah-Jones could be considered again for tenure before the end of her current five-year contract.
Duckett didn’t immediately respond to an email seeking comment.
The university announced in April that Hannah-Jones, who won the Pulitzer Prize for her work on The 1619 Project for The New York Times Magazine, will be joining the faculty in July. Some conservatives have complained about the project, which focuses on the country’s history of slavery.
Knight Foundation President Alberto Ibargüen issued a statement noting that while the foundation respects the independence of the universities where it endows chairs, he hopes UNC will reconsider its decision to offer Hannah-Jones a contract position instead of tenure.
“It is not our place to tell UNC or UNC/Hussman who they should appoint or give tenure to,” Ibargüen said. “It is, however, clear to us that Hannah-Jones is eminently qualified for the appointment and would urge the trustees of the University of North Carolina to reconsider their decision within the timeframe of our agreement.”
The foundation said it established the chaired professorship at UNC in 1984 with a focus on advertising that was later changed to its current subject matter.
Hannah-Jones didn't respond to an email asking for comment. But on Thursday, she tweeted: "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.”
The 1619 Project is an initiative of The New York Times Magazine that began in August 2019, the 400th anniversary of the beginning of American slavery. The magazine describes the project as being designed to reframe the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of Black Americans “at the very center of our national narrative.”
The project was converted into a popular podcast. Materials were developed for schools to use and The Pulitzer Center partnered with the Times to develop 1619 Project lesson plans. However, objections to The 1619 Project have morphed into legislative efforts to prevent its presentation in public schools.