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A Deeper Dive On Nikole Hannah-Jones' Exit From UNC Chapel Hill

John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation / chucka_nc/Flickr

Investigative journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones says she will not teach at UNC Chapel Hill's journalism school, but instead has accepted a position at Howard University. She made the announcement today on "CBS This Morning." Her decision follows an extended and public fight over whether UNC would give her tenure.

Joe Killian of the left-leaning NC Policy Watch, who has interviewed both Hannah-Jones and Walter Hussman Jr., the major donor who emailed concerns about Hannah-Jones to university leaders, joins WFAE's "All Things Considered" host Gwendolyn Glenn.

Gwendolyn Glenn: Joe, based on your conversations with Nikole Hannah-Jones, does she say anything that hinted at her announcement this morning to pass on the teaching offer at UNC for an opportunity to teach at Howard University in Washington, D.C.?

Joe Killian: Well, I think she's expressed dissatisfaction with the process throughout. The fact that Walter Hussman, who should have been completely outside of this process, was pretty intimately involved, that he had multiple conversations with the dean of the journalism school, with Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz, and reportedly with the Board of Trustees members, as well, was disturbing to her.

Glenn: But did she hint at anything in terms of taking the position at Howard? Because I'm sure she probably has received lots of offers since all of this started.

Killian: Yeah, when I interviewed her Monday, she said that she began getting offers and people reaching out to her from different institutions on the day that our first story ran, breaking this — saying we'll not only offer you tenure, but also respect.

Glenn: Well, now UNC said little about why they withheld giving her tenure. And there are reports it was because of pushback from conservatives. Hannah-Jones is best known for her work with the New York Times Magazine's 1619 Project, which focuses on race in America and commemorates the 400th anniversary of the first enslaved Africans arriving in Virginia.

In your reporting, you interviewed Walter Hussman Jr. What did he tell you about her work on the 1619 Project and the role that played, if any, in his concerns about her?

Killian: It seemed to be at the center of his concerns, although he also expressed dissatisfaction with an essay that she wrote about the concept of reparations to Black Americans for slavery.

Glenn: But did he say specifically what he was concerned about, about the 1619 Project?

Killian: He pointed to criticisms that the 1619 Project has gotten from historians who take issue with some of her characterizations, chiefly claims about people who were involved in the Revolutionary War and the fight for American independence being driven by the desire to maintain slavery in the States.

Glenn: Do you know what the policy is at UNC Chapel Hill in terms of keeping politics out of decisions such as this?

Killian: Well, there's no keeping politics out of decisions such as this, at least at this level, because the entire UNC Board of Trustees, they're all political appointees, they're appointees either of the members of the Board of Governors, the UNC system Board of Governors, who are all political appointees, or directly of the North Carolina General Assembly.

Glenn: Now, this was a very public battle over tenure all the way to Tuesday morning's announcement on national television. It also mobilized Black and white students, faculty. What impact do you think this will have on the university going forward?

Killian: Well, I think it's important to look at this as part of a continuum of controversial public discussions about race and politics at UNC and in the UNC system. There have been fights over naming or renaming buildings on UNC campus that are named for people who were slaveholders and people who are avowed white supremacists. And now we get to this, which is at its heart is a battle over what you can say in academia about history and race and who gets to say that.

So it's having a measurable effect on UNC Chapel Hill. There are Black faculty who are talking about leaving. There are Black faculty who have left and who have talked about this as at least part of their decision. And there are students who are leaving and talking about leaving, and there are people who they've been unable to recruit, who they were strongly trying to recruit, because of this.

Glenn: Anything else you'd like to add that I didn't ask you about this?

Killian: You know, I think a lot of people look at this as a culture war thing, that it's part of this ongoing culture war over race and politics. It's really important also to look at it from an academic freedom standpoint. I think a lot of the faculty are concerned that if you have to pass some sort of political litmus test to get tenure at universities, then you're not going to see people with unpopular opinions or controversial scholarship do that, and that's a linchpin of academic freedom.

Glenn: Joe, thank you so much for joining us.

Killian: Glad to help.

Glenn: Joe Killian is with NC Policy Watch and has been reporting on the battle at UNC Chapel Hill over tenure for New York Times Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones. She announced Tuesday morning that she will take a position at Howard University, an HBCU in Washington, D.C., as a Knight Chair in Race and Journalism faculty position.

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Gwendolyn is an award-winning journalist who has covered a broad range of stories on the local and national levels. Her experience includes producing on-air reports for National Public Radio and she worked full-time as a producer for NPR’s All Things Considered news program for five years. She worked for several years as an on-air contract reporter for CNN in Atlanta and worked in print as a reporter for the Baltimore Sun Media Group, The Washington Post and covered Congress and various federal agencies for the Daily Environment Report and Real Estate Finance Today. Glenn has won awards for her reports from the Maryland-DC-Delaware Press Association, SNA and the first-place radio award from the National Association of Black Journalists.