But she won’t have the job-security privilege of tenure, even though the journalism faculty and others supported that designation. The roadblock was the university’s board of trustees, for reasons that remain unclear. Many faculty at UNC and others who admire the work of Hannah-Jones are livid at what they see as a failure to properly recognize an authoritative figure in the field of journalism, one with close ties to Chapel Hill.
On Thursday afternoon, board chair Richard Y. Stevens told reporters in a videoconference session that trustee Charles G. “Chuck” Duckett had raised questions to the UNC provost in advance of a January meeting about a proposal to grant tenure to Hannah-Jones. Duckett chairs a committee with oversight of university affairs.
Stevens did not elaborate much on what the questions were, but he said it is not unusual for trustees to probe further, “particularly candidates that don’t come from a traditional academic-type background.” Stevens said Duckett suggested postponing the proposal to allow time to consider the issues.
The result, Stevens said, was that the matter never came to a vote. Top university officials did not present “any recommendation on this appointment to the board, nor did the board take any action on this appointment,” Stevens said. “Let me stress that.”
Stevens insisted that the board had not denied Hannah-Jones tenure. “That did not take place,” he said.
University officials instead pursued an alternative plan that did not require board approval: Hannah-Jones was offered, and accepted, a five-year contract without tenure. Susan King, dean of the journalism school, wrote in an email to her faculty on Sunday that Hannah-Jones would have an option to be reviewed for tenure within five years.
Hannah-Jones holds a master’s degree in journalism and mass communication from UNC. She also was named a 2017 MacArthur Fellow — an honor commonly known as the “genius grant” — and was elected this year to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
Hannah-Jones did not respond to email and telephone messages seeking comment. On Thursday, she wrote on Twitter: “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.”
King issued a statement praising Hannah-Jones. “While I am disappointed that the appointment is without tenure,” King said, “there is no doubt in anyone’s mind that she will be a star faculty member.”
“This is one of the most prestigious positions in academic journalism,” UNC Chancellor Kevin M. Guskiewicz said. “We will welcome Nikole Hannah-Jones to our campus.”
The 1619 Project has drawn criticism from conservative groups for its attempt to reframe the country’s history, starting with the arrival of the first enslaved Africans in colonial Virginia and then examining how the development of slavery influenced the nation in subsequent generations. Some prominent historians have also raised objections to how the project portrayed President Abraham Lincoln’s views on race and the weight it gave to the role of slavery as a factor behind the Revolutionary War.
But the project has shone a spotlight on long-standing shortcomings in how American schools have taught about slavery, and it continues to resonate with many people who see it as a spark for vital discussions about history at a time of racial reckoning nationwide.
Whether or how the debate over the 1619 Project influenced the trustees is unclear. Stevens did not respond to an email asking about that.
NC Policy Watch, an outlet connected to a left-leaning research and advocacy organization, quoted an unnamed trustee speaking about the controversy. “This is a very political thing” the trustee told NC Policy Watch. The trustee added: "There have been people writing letters and making calls, for and against. But I will leave it to you which is carrying more weight.”
Journalism faculty at UNC were irate.
“The failure to offer Hannah-Jones tenure with her appointment as a Knight chair unfairly moves the goalposts and violates long-standing norms and established processes relating to tenure and promotion at UNC Chapel Hill,” numerous Hussman faculty members wrote in a post on Medium. “The two immediately preceding Knight chairs in our School received tenure upon appointment.”
The professors added: “We demand explanations from the university’s leadership at all levels.”
Deb Aikat, an associate professor of journalism and one of those who signed the statement, added in an interview that ideological divides often shape the governance of public higher education in North Carolina: “This is not like I’m telling you a little secret,” Aikat said. “You know it. I know it. … There has been political interference.”
Dorothy Tucker, president of the National Association of Black Journalists, expressed concern about any possibility that involvement in the 1619 Project could have hampered a tenure bid for Hannah-Jones. “If the speculations are true, then we denounce any decision to deny a distinguished journalist tenure because she simply did her job by reporting facts about slavery in America,” Tucker said in a statement.
Mimi Chapman, a professor of social work who is chair of the faculty at Chapel Hill, said it is “exceedingly rare” for the board not to ratify a tenure recommendation from the university. The process of tenure review is lengthy and rigorous, Chapman said, moving through various levels of faculty and administrative input. Chapman said many professors were disheartened at the outcome in this case. “To do this is to send a very disparaging message to the faculty,” Chapman said.
Alberto Ibargüen, president of the Knight Foundation, which endowed the faculty chair Hannah-Jones will hold, said in a statement that the foundation would not seek to dictate any tenure decisions at UNC. But he said the foundation would “urge the trustees of the University of North Carolina to reconsider their decision within the timeframe of our agreement.”