“Not only do we support academic freedom, but we believe that a university — that our university — is the very place that the most important issues of our time should be debated,” R. Gene Davis Jr., vice chair of the board, said in announcing the vote. The public portion of the meeting was shown online through a live video feed.
Davis called the action “another important step in creating an even better university.” He also urged civility. “We need to listen to each other, and not cancel each other and call each other names,” Davis said.
The decision to award tenure to Hannah-Jones could defuse what had become an extraordinary showdown over the academic appointment and the degree of influence of politicians and donors in faculty affairs. A decision to deny tenure could have plunged Chapel Hill into deeper acrimony and infuriated faculty who saw the case as a test of equity for Black women in academia.
Tensions ran high before the vote. Protesters at the meeting held handwritten signs with messages such as “Abolish BOT” and “SHAME!,” according to a reporter from WRAL-TV. When the board voted to go into closed session, some protesters refused to leave the room, until they were pushed out. Hannah-Jones lamented, in a tweet, that some Black students were “shoved and punched because they were confused about the process.” She wrote: “This is not right.”
George Battle, vice chancellor for institutional integrity and risk management at UNC, said in a written statement that about 75 members of the public demonstrated peacefully at the meeting, and a small number did not leave when asked. UNC police moved those protesters into the hall, Battle wrote, and the situation was resolved without injuries.
Hannah-Jones did not immediately reply to a message seeking comment on the milestone of earning tenure. She issued a statement through her legal team thanking supporters and leaving open questions about her plans at UNC.
“Today’s outcome and the actions of the past month are about more than just me,” she wrote in the statement. “This fight is about ensuring the journalistic and academic freedom of Black writers, researchers, teachers, and students. We must ensure that our work is protected and able to proceed free from the risk of repercussions, and we are not there yet. These last weeks have been very challenging and difficult and I need to take some time to process all that has occurred and determine what is the best way forward.”
The statement did not indicate when she might start.
“Our students are eager to learn from her and we are ready to welcome her to the Carolina faculty as soon as possible,” Kevin M. Guskiewicz, the university chancellor, said after the vote.
Hannah-Jones is best known for conceiving the 1619 Project for the New York Times, an initiative to reexamine American history and the consequences of slavery from the year enslaved African people arrived in colonial Virginia.
Last year Hannah-Jones won the Pulitzer Prize for commentary for the essay she wrote for the project. She has won numerous other professional honors, including a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant. She holds a master’s degree from the UNC journalism school and is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
The 1619 Project has come under fire from critics, including prominent Republicans, who believe it gives slavery and racial discrimination too much weight in the American story. Some historians have also called certain parts of the Hannah-Jones essay inaccurate. The Times clarified one passage but stood by her work.
On April 26, UNC announced with fanfare that it had hired Hannah-Jones to the position of Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism at the Hussman School of Journalism and Media. Hannah-Jones seemed enthusiastic then.
“I love Carolina,” she said in a statement for the announcement. “The University has given me a lot, and I’m grateful for the opportunity to give back by helping students pursue their dreams and learn how to practice the type of journalism that is truly reflective of our multiracial nation.”
But there was a catch, hidden at the time.
In mid-May, the Hussman school’s dean, Susan King, revealed that Hannah-Jones had been hired to a five-year contract without tenure. Previous Knight chair appointments at UNC had come with tenure, and King had championed Hannah-Jones to receive the same honor. UNC faculty, students and other supporters of Hannah-Jones erupted when they learned what had happened behind the scenes.
The obstacle, it turned out, was the board of trustees. The board holds power of final approval on academic tenure appointments, usually a formality after multiple layers of faculty and administrative review. Hannah-Jones had cleared those layers in her application for tenure, but she had not cleared the board.
According to a letter from her attorneys, obtained last week by the news site NC Policy Watch, Hannah-Jones had expected board action on her tenure application in November. It didn’t happen. Then she thought a vote would happen in January. That didn’t happen, either. “To this date, she has not received an explanation from UNC as to why tenure has been withheld from her,” the attorneys wrote.
NC Policy Watch has reported that some trustees at the time had political concerns about the appointment. The 13-member board of trustees includes four members chosen by the Republican-led state legislature and eight by the UNC system’s Board of Governors.
The chair of the board of trustees, Richard Y. Stevens, told reporters in May that trustee Charles G. “Chuck” Duckett raised questions about the tenure application in advance of the January meeting and suggested a postponement. Stevens said at the time it is not unusual for trustees to probe further, “particularly candidates that don’t come from a traditional academic-type background.” Stevens insisted that the board had not taken any formal action to deny Hannah-Jones tenure.
Meanwhile, another potential obstacle had emerged from a different source. Arkansas newspaper publisher Walter E. Hussman Jr., a major donor for whom the journalism school is named, had last year flagged the likelihood of a Hannah-Jones hire as a matter of concern. “I worry about the controversy of tying the UNC journalism school to the 1619 project,” Hussman wrote in an email to King, according to the news site the Assembly.
In February, university officials came up with an alternative route to bring Hannah-Jones onto the faculty. They offered her a five-year contract without tenure that would not require trustee approval. Hannah-Jones signed it. Her start date at the time was set for July 1.
Her attorneys now contend the offer was misleading, in light of subsequent revelations. They said in the letter last week that Hannah-Jones was rescinding the five-year contract and would not accept a position at UNC without tenure. But they also wrote that Hannah-Jones was not withdrawing her tenure application. The letter seemed intended to force the trustees to take up the question.
“Let the chips fall where they may,” Hannah-Jones wrote in a tweet Wednesday ahead of the meeting.
After the tenure vote, Hannah-Jones tweeted a picture of a hand raising a glass with a beverage in what appeared to be a gesture of victory and perhaps relief.
Hussman said in an email Wednesday evening that he recognized the limits of his role as a donor and supports academic freedom. “I look forward to meeting her and discussing journalism,” he wrote.
Ultimately, Stevens and Duckett supported tenure for Hannah-Jones. The four dissenting trustees, according to a university official and the Daily Tar Heel student newspaper, were David L. Boliek Jr., Haywood D. Cochrane Jr., Allie Ray McCullen and John P. Preyer.
Seth M. Noar, a distinguished professor at the Hussman school and member of a key faculty committee on appointments, promotions and tenure, said he was delighted at the board vote. “But there’s no doubt that damage was done here,” he said. “I don’t think we really know what the repercussions of that will look like.”
The university has much work to do with issues of race on campus, Noar said, and this episode was “another cut at the wound that was already there.”