Nikole Hannah-Jones won't join UNC faculty without tenure, letter from lawyers says

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Nikole Hannah-Jones, creator of the 1619 Project, said she will not join the faculty of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill without tenure, according to a letter from her legal team published by NC PolicyWatch.

Hannah-Jones will not start her job as Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism at the university's Hussman School of Journalism and Media on July 1, according to the letter, which was published Tuesday. The university faces mounting calls to offer the acclaimed journalist tenure.

Joel Curran, a spokesperson for UNC, confirmed the university was contacted by attorneys representing Hannah-Jones.

"While this remains a confidential personnel matter ... we feel she will add great value to the Carolina campus," he said in a statement sent to USA TODAY.

The letter emphasized Hannah-Jones has not withdrawn her application for tenure and does not intend to do so. Hannah-Jones was offered "inferior terms of employment" as a result of various forms of discrimination and "unlawful political influence," according to the letter.

“Under these circumstances, any appointment of Ms. Hannah-Jones without tenure is unacceptable,” the letter said.

Tenured professors can be terminated only “under extraordinary circumstances” such as a discontinued program or severe financial restraints, according to the American Association of University Professors. Tenure, according to the association, is meant to protect academic freedom and prevent faculty members from losing their positions because of their speech, work or research findings.

Hannah-Jones is the creator of the New York Times Magazine’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1619 Project, which reframed U.S. history surrounding slavery and offered a complex look at the role it has played in American democracy. Her reporting on racial segregation and education changes earned Hannah-Jones a 2017 MacArthur Foundation Fellowship.

Her 1619 Project garnered criticism from conservatives, including former President Donald Trump.

Nikole Hannah-Jones attends the "Neutral Ground" premiere during the 2021 Tribeca Festival at Pier 76 on June 19, 2021 in New York City.
Nikole Hannah-Jones attends the "Neutral Ground" premiere during the 2021 Tribeca Festival at Pier 76 on June 19, 2021 in New York City.

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Hannah-Jones was offered a five-year contract as the Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism in April. Every Knight Chair since 1980 has been appointed with tenure, according to her letter. It said Hannah-Jones understood from the beginning of the contract process that her position would include tenure under this precedent and “she was repeatedly told by UNC orally and in writing that her hiring process would include a vote on her tenure package by the UNC Board of Trustees.”

Lawyers for Hannah-Jones said in the letter she completed requirements for the tenure process, including several meetings with faculty and teaching a class to students for evaluation purposes, but the Board of Trustees has not voted.

“To this date, she has not received an explanation from UNC as to why tenure has been withheld from her,” the letter said.

In February, Hannah-Jones was told she could join the faculty without tenure, and she agreed to the terms to minimize “monetary damages” and “damage to her reputational standing,” according to the letter.

Walter Hussman, publisher of the Arkansas Democrat-Herald and a major donor to the university, expressed concern about Hannah-Jones’ appointment in an email last year to the dean of the journalism school, the Assembly reported.

“Based on her own words, many will conclude she is trying to push an agenda, and they will assume she is manipulating historical facts to support it,” he wrote, according to the publication.

Hussman said in an interview with WRAL-TV he did not pressure journalism school leaders on decisions related to the hiring of Hannah-Jones.

“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,” the letter said. “In light of this information, Ms. Hannah-Jones cannot trust that the University would consider her tenure application in good faith.”

The university has faced backlash – from within its campus and beyond – over the board’s decision.

The Carolina Black Caucus reported 70% of its members said they are considering leaving the university, and the school has lost high-profile faculty and staff members, as well as academics the university was recruiting to join its faculty.

Mimi Chapman, chair of the faculty, said in an open letter Saturday that the board “has remained stubbornly silent.” She requested that “the campus community speak loudly and with one voice” in calling for a response from the board.

Nearly 20 Hussman faculty members signed a joint statement in May, calling the university’s decision to offer Hannah-Jones the appointment without tenure “disheartening.”

Student leaders, including UNC Chapel Hill’s student body president, have been vocal in their support for Hannah-Jones. Student government leaders expressed their frustration and disappointment in an open letter to Hannah-Jones, in which they warned her “that UNC does not create an environment for Black academics to flourish.”

The university’s Black Student Movement organized a rally in support of Hannah-Jones scheduled for Friday.

In a previous statement, Hannah-Jones said she retained legal counsel “to ensure the academic and journalistic freedom of Black writers is protected to the full extent of the law.”

Contributing: Lindsay Schnell

Contact News Now Reporter Christine Fernando at cfernando@usatoday.com or follow her on Twitter at @christinetfern.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Nikole Hannah-Jones won't join UNC faculty without tenure, lawyers say

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