The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Nikole Hannah-Jones’s tenure saga highlights lack of Black journalism instructors, students say

Journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones is interviewed in her home in Brooklyn on Tuesday, July 6, 2021. (John Minchillo/AP)
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Rising college senior Charity Cohen awoke Tuesday in her Whitsett, N.C., home to a call from her father, who had disappointing news.

Acclaimed reporter Nikole Hannah-Jones announced on “CBS This Morning” that she was heading to Howard University instead of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, ending a months-long battle with UNC’s board of trustees, which stalled in offering her tenure.

“[My dad] knew how excited I was about having her as a professor because he knows I appreciate her work on the 1619 Project and her body of work in general,” Cohen, a 21-year-old student at UNC’s Hussman School of Journalism and Media, told The Washington Post. “It was not something I wanted to wake up to.”

Cohen’s phone lit up with messages from her peers who, while slightly dispirited, supported the professor who had won a MacArthur genius grant and a Pulitzer Prize because of her journalism.

“At this point in the game, we’re rooting for Nikole Hannah-Jones period, not as a potential professor and as a woman but as a Black woman,” Cohen said. “[The text messages] were all words of encouragement … words of solidarity.”

Hannah-Jones was initially hired as a Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Reporting, a position for accomplished journalists endowed by the Knight Foundation, but without tenure. The board of trustees voted to award her tenure last week after public protests from UNC-Chapel Hill students and faculty members who championed Hannah-Jones’s appointment and accused the board of mistreating her.

Cohen and other Black students at the journalism school and at programs across the country told The Post that they were disappointed that Hannah-Jones wouldn’t be counted among faculty at UNC and that the spectacle of her tenure process made them examine the lack of Black professors who are teaching them how to report the truth. Hannah-Jones’s presence would not have overwhelmingly changed the racial demographics of the school, but it would’ve added to the number of Black instructors on campus whose presence alone is a motivator to pursue the field, they said. Students said it also came with a sobering message: being “twice as good” doesn’t always yield what one deserves.

Pulitzer prize-winning journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones announced she will not join University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill on "CBS This Morning" on July 6. (Video: CBS)

Hannah-Jones’s move to Howard University comes at a time when the country is having more-critical discussions about race. Newsrooms and universities have been scrambling to fill leadership and teaching roles with candidates from underrepresented backgrounds as future reporters demand to see more complexity and nuance from editors and instructors.

Had Hannah-Jones accepted the Hussman School position, she would’ve been the 10th non-White, tenured faculty member and the fifth Black tenured instructor at the journalism school, according to data provided by a university spokesperson. She also would’ve been the second tenured Black female professor in the school’s 70-year history.

Higher education in general also doesn’t reflect the nation’s demographics.

Nearly 13 percent of full-time faculty members at higher education institutions in 2018 were from underrepresented minority groups. The lack of representation is especially pronounced among Black Americans, who constitute six percent of faculty members, and Latinos, who make up just over five percent of faculty members, according to the American Association of University Professors.

The scant numbers of Black faculty members aren’t an anomaly for UNC’s Hussman School, but indicative of U.S. journalism.

Newsrooms have been reported as being less diverse than overall U.S. workplaces even though recent years have shown a small increase in the number of non-White people in newsrooms, according to 2018 data from the News Leaders Association.

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The nation and institutions of higher learning are behind when it comes to addressing structural inequality, but they aren’t alone, Hannah-Jones told The Post, citing backlash against her Pulitzer Prize-winning 1619 Project and controversies surrounding critical race theory — an intellectual movement that examines the way policies and laws perpetuate systemic racism — in public schools.

“Journalism schools reflect the same reality we see in the rest of the country,” she said. “Why it’s especially troubling in journalism is that journalism is the firewall of our democracy. Journalism is what’s supposed to be exposing the way power is wielded. If that story is being filtered through an almost exclusively White lens, it’s not accurate. It’s not capable of helping us of understand the country we live in.”

Rising junior Jailyn Neville, 20, and other Black UNC students already had misgivings about how Hannah-Jones’s appointment would be handled after experiencing the way a Confederate monument was removed from campus.

In February, the UNC System Board of Governors approved a $2.5 million trust for the NC Sons of Confederate Veterans to oversee its care, unsettling Black students who make up 8 percent of the student population.

Neville said many of the conversations she’s had “have been a collective groan” with “continued disappointment” in university leaders.

Following the statue’s removal, Neville said she attended a “race and reckoning” program on campus that was mostly led by White faculty members and administrators.

“No one I knew was optimistic Nikole Hannah-Jones would end up coming,” said the aspiring visual storyteller. “This mostly comes as a shock to people outside the student body.”

Neville, 20, said she’s seen how the lack of Black instructors at the journalism school has influenced the feedback she’s received. In one class, an instructor told her that she needed to talk about topics other than race so she won’t alienate Black readers.

“I don’t want to say I will never learn about race in J-school,” she said. “But we are more encouraged to be colorblind. They try to teach as though the world is moving toward a place where race will no longer matter.”

Some Black journalism students at majority-White schools told The Post that seeing high-ranking faculty members and school leaders motivates them to achieve their own goals even though they know their path probably will be difficult.

Elisabeth Betts, 19, a rising sophomore at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, said she was in awe of Dean Charles Whitaker’s position when she was considering where to attend college and that she has been even more inspired by Ava Thompson Greenwell, a Black professor at the school with a career Betts wants to emulate.

“I do think it’s really important that she is Black and that I’m seeing a version of myself,” Betts said. “I’ve had conversations with her that I couldn’t have with other White professors.”

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Colleges and universities are trying to hire more people from underrepresented groups, according to Trey Wright, a managing partner at executive search and recruitment firm Kaye/Bassman International Corporation. But the result of that work probably will take time, especially at larger institutions where more stakeholders are tasked with approving decisions.

After a wave of racial-justice demonstrations last year, many higher education leaders have worked to attract and retain talent from underrepresented groups, Wright said, though some have to be goaded to see the benefit.

“At the end of day, the reality is that higher education institutions are a business,” he said. “Business is only as good as customer base you’re serving.”

Finding a replacement for Hannah-Jones probably will be a tall order for the Hussman School, said Susan King, the journalism school’s dean.

Hannah-Jones was perfectly suited for the tenured position and “hit on the nail of every single thing” the journalism school was seeking, King said, noting that Hannah-Jones had overwhelming support from the UNC school.

“No one wanted her to take on the mantle for the fight,” King told The Post. “I’m very proud of what she’s about to build at Howard. … It’s a win for Howard, a loss for us, but a big win for journalism.”

Hannah-Jones noted that her tenure ordeal isn’t representative of other people of color — many aren’t placed on tenure tracks or do not receive tenure approval from boards, she said.

Going to Howard University won’t hinder her commitment to helping mold future Black reporters at other schools, Hannah-Jones said.

“I’m not going to Howard to preach; I’m going to Howard to teach,” she said. “All of our Black students need support so that we can go into newsrooms and do the highest quality journalism.”

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