Hannah-Jones, a writer for the New York Times, won the Pulitzer Prize for commentary last year for her essay in the 1619 Project on the role of slavery in American history. She also has won a MacArthur “genius grant” and holds a master’s degree in journalism from UNC. The university announced in April that she would join its Hussman School of Journalism and Media this summer as a professor with a special title: Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism.
Last week, the journalism school dean, Susan King, disclosed that unlike previous Knight chairs at UNC, Hannah-Jones was hired without the job-protecting designation of tenure. Her contract, King said, has a five-year term with a possibility of tenure review within that time. Tenure gives faculty a substantial amount of freedom to speak, research and publish on topics of their choosing without fear that it will cost them their jobs. UNC had about 622 tenured full professors in 2019, federal data show. Of them, eight were Black women.
It also emerged last week that a trustee named Charles G. “Chuck” Duckett had raised questions to the university’s senior leadership about a tenure proposal for Hannah-Jones several months ago and asked to postpone the matter. The proposal, according to board chair Richard Y. Stevens, did not come to the board for a vote. Faculty, students and others accused the trustees of playing politics with the proposal, suggesting that conservative forces opposed to the views of history underlying the 1619 Project had waged a campaign against giving tenure to Hannah-Jones.
Stevens has said that the board did not deny tenure to Hannah-Jones and that it is not uncommon for the board to raise questions about “candidates that don’t come from a traditional academic-type background.”
Stevens said in a statement the matter was referred to a committee on university affairs.
Duckett, who leads the committee, did not say when the committee or board would act on it. “I want answers before a vote,” Duckett told the News & Observer. He also was quoted as saying that the board was not necessarily bound by the precedent on tenure for previous faculty who held the Knight chair.
University Chancellor Kevin M. Guskiewicz said he supports the roles of the faculty and the board. “We all share the same goal of ensuring Carolina has the highest caliber of faculty educating the next generation of leaders,” he said in a statement.
Many professors, students and alumni have mobilized in support of awarding Hannah-Jones tenure. On Wednesday, an advertisement appeared in the News & Observer on behalf of 1,619 UNC alumni who said they were outraged at the board’s position.
“We demand that the Board of Trustees immediately revisit this matter, grant tenure as recommended by the appropriate faculty, Dean, and Provost, and restore the integrity of our university,” the group said in the ad.
Hannah-Jones did not immediately reply to phone and email messages for comment. She wrote in a tweet Wednesday that she was “grateful for and overwhelmed by” everyone who had signed a public letter of support and the News & Observer ad. “This fight is not about me,” she wrote.
Mimi V. Chapman, a professor of social work and chair of the faculty at UNC, said there is ample reason for the board to hold an emergency meeting to consider the issue before July 1.
“There have been competing narratives about why the board acted as it did,” Chapman said. “One of them is that some of them are taking a stand on her work in surreptitious way and don’t want to have her on campus in a tenured position.
“Another is that this is some sort of administrative snafu,” she continued. “If that’s the case then the obvious remedy is to reconsider her case with all deliberate speed.”
Chapman said there are concerns about equity for Hannah-Jones as well as broader concerns about the relationship between faculty and trustees. “The campus is incredibly galvanized around this,” she said.