According to the letter, Hannah-Jones understood the position would come with the job-protecting designation of tenure, just as it did for previous professionals who have taken on the Knight Chair professorship. Hannah-Jones’s bid for tenure won support from journalism faculty and others on campus.
But the university’s board has not yet voted on a proposal to grant tenure to the award-winning New York Times journalist, known for her groundbreaking work on the 1619 Project, which explored the legacy of slavery in the United States. A trustee raised questions about the proposal earlier this year, and the board chair said the matter never came up for a vote.
Instead, Hannah-Jones was offered a five-year contract with a possibility of a tenure review within that time, Susan King, dean of the journalism school, said last month. That plan did not require trustees’ approval.
The university has not explained why its board has not voted on the proposal that would grant Hannah-Jones tenure upon starting her position, according to the letter from her legal team.
Joel Curran, a spokesperson for UNC, confirmed in an email that the university had received the letter.
“While this remains a confidential personnel matter, as [UNC] Chancellor [Kevin M.] Guskiewicz has said publicly, we feel she will add great value to the Carolina campus,” Curran said.
Hannah-Jones has not withdrawn her application for tenure, according to the letter. She declined to comment further Tuesday night.
It remains unclear why the university’s board has not voted on the proposal, but some faculty and students have suggested there were objections to the 1619 Project, which has been attacked by some conservatives — including former president Donald Trump.
Walter E. Hussman Jr., an Arkansas newspaper publisher and major donor to the university, wrote in an email last year to the dean of the journalism school — which bears Hussman’s name — “I worry about the controversy of tying the UNC journalism school to the 1619 project,” according to news site the Assembly.
Hussman said he did not pressure the journalism school dean and denied threatening to withhold the balance of his $25 million commitment to the school if Hannah-Jones was hired.
But the ordeal appears to have further threatened Hannah-Jones’s future at the university.
“Since signing the fixed-term contract, Ms. Hannah-Jones has come to learn that political interference and influence from a powerful donor contributed to the Board of Trustees’ failure to consider her tenure application,” according to the letter from Hannah-Jones’s legal team. “In light of this information, Ms. Hannah-Jones cannot trust that the University would consider her tenure application in good faith during the period of the fixed-term contract.”
The letter continues: “Such good faith consideration for tenure was understood to be an essential element of the fixed-term contract when Ms. Hannah-Jones agreed to enter into it.”
Jeremy Barr contributed to this report.