It’s official: Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones will not join the faculty at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill on July 1, as previously announced. And she won’t join the faculty at all without tenure.
“The inferior terms of employment offered to Ms. Hannah-Jones in the fixed-term contract resulted from viewpoint discrimination in violation of the freedom of speech and expression, secured by the U.S. and North Carolina Constitutions,” Hannah-Jones’s lawyers wrote to the university this week. The letter also accuses the university of race and sex discrimination and retaliation in violation of federal and North Carolina state law, unlawful political influence in violation of North Carolina state law, “and other unlawful grounds.”
“Under these circumstances,” the legal team wrote, “any appointment of Ms. Hannah-Jones without tenure is unacceptable.”
It was widely assumed that Hannah-Jones would not join the faculty without tenure, at least since it was revealed last month that Chapel Hill’s Board of Trustees had deferred her tenure vote over political concerns. This became even clearer when the June 4 deadline that Hannah-Jones set for the board to consider her tenure bid came and went without a vote. But the letter from Hannah-Jones’s attorneys at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund confirms those suspicions.
The letter also provides more insight into how Hannah-Jones’s tenure appointment got derailed in the first place. It’s a window into her potential legal case against the university, as well.
In April -- before it was public knowledge that the board refused to hold a tenure vote for Hannah-Jones -- Carolina announced that she would join the faculty as the Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism, starting in July. But the lawyers’ letter details a different timeline: Hannah-Jones was first scheduled to join the faculty in the Hussman School of Journalism and Media in January of this year, it says, but the board declined to vote on her tenure case twice, first in November and then again in January. The body did so without ever providing Hannah-Jones an explanation, and despite stellar recommendations at all other levels of her tenure review.
Then, in February, according to the letter, Carolina told Hannah-Jones that she could only join the faculty by entering into a fixed-term contract, without tenure. “Without full knowledge about why she had been denied a vote on her tenure package, Ms. Hannah-Jones entered into the fixed-term agreement on or about Feb. 28,” the letter continues, “to minimize the monetary damages she incurred as well as the damage to her reputational standing.” (The letter was first obtained by NC Policy Watch.)
What happened next is well known: NC Policy Watch reported that Carolina’s trustees refused to vote on Hannah-Jones’s tenure case over political concerns, mostly stemming from Hannah-Jones’s work on The New York Times Magazine’s award-winning "1619 Project," which recenters within U.S. history the struggles and contributions of the very first Black Americans onward. The project was widely lauded by many readers and academics, but some critics -- including former president Donald Trump -- alleged that it was unpatriotic. Backlash against the project fueled some of the current legislation against teaching critical race theory in public schools, colleges and universities.
NC Policy Watch subsequently revealed just how close to home some of these critics were. It published emails showing that the Hussman School’s top donor and namesake, Arkansas newspaper publisher Walter Hussman, had emailed Carolina administrators and at least one trustee to object to Hannah-Jones’s appointment.
“I worry about the controversy of tying the UNC journalism school to the 1619 project,” Hussman wrote in one such message in December, just as the board would have been weighing Hannah-Jones’s tenure case. In another message, he hinted at the racial dynamics at play, saying that “Long before Nikole Hannah Jones won” her Pulitzer, “courageous white Southerners risking their lives standing up for the rights of blacks were winning Pulitzer Prizes, too.” Hannah-Jones is Black and many of her critics are white conservatives.
The board has offered no real explanation as to why it tabled Hannah-Jones’s tenure vote. Richard Stevens, board chair, said in May that “it’s not unusual” for board members to have questions about candidates’ backgrounds, “particularly candidates that don’t come from a traditional, academic-type background.” Yet that explanation doesn’t really make sense, given that other Hussman professors without traditional academic credentials were tenured upon appointment, as journalism is a field in which practical experience is prized.
Hannah-Jones’s lawyers elaborated on this point in their new memo to Carolina.
Hannah-Jones “has been a practicing journalist for nearly 20 years, has a master’s degree from the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media and is the recipient of the most prestigious honors and accolades in her field,” the letter says. “She was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for her journalism in 2020, has won three National Magazine Awards, one Peabody Award, two Polk awards and a MacArthur ‘Genius’ Fellowship, among other honors. She is also the recipient of a UNC 2019 Distinguished Alumna Award, has been elected as a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and of the Society of American Historians, and was inducted this year into the North Carolina Media and Journalism Hall of Fame.”
Through her attorneys, Hannah-Jones has already indicated that she is considering legal action against the university. The new letter hints at the basis of a potential lawsuit, saying that Hannah-Jones “understood from the outset that the Knight Chair position would entail tenure upon appointment, not only because every Knight Chair to join UNC since 1980 has been appointed with tenure, but also because 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 prior to her appointment.”
Elsewhere, the letter asserts that Hannah-Jones did not get tenure because of her race and sex and in violation of her First Amendment rights.
Although the deadline she set for the board to hold a tenure vote has passed, the letter makes clear that she has not and does not plan to withdraw her tenure bid.
Joel Curran, a Carolina spokesperson, said in a statement that the university “has been contacted by attorneys representing Nikole Hannah-Jones. While this remains a confidential personnel matter, as Chancellor [Kevin] Guskiewicz has said publicly, we feel she will add great value to the Carolina campus.”
Among other duties, Hannah-Jones is scheduled to teach two courses in the fall: magazine writing and investigative reporting.
Hannah-Jones has seen a wave of support, most recently in response to a plea from Carolina’s faculty chair, Mimi Chapman, Frank A. Daniels Distinguished Professor for Human Service Policy Information, for department chairs and deans to speak out about the case.
“You do not have to agree with Ms. Hannah-Jones’ conclusions in the ‘1619 Project’ to do this,” Chapman said in a statement last weekend. “You only have to agree that faculty voice must govern the tenure process for academic integrity to have meaning. If outside bodies, in this case the BOT, without subject matter expertise are the arbiters of faculty scholarship, all faculty members run the risk of being punished for work that questions the status quo, threatens some outside interest, or makes people uncomfortable.”
Multiple chairs, deans and other groups have responded already, from the departments of medicine to history.
In her open letter, Lisa Lindsay, chair of history, addressed the controversy surrounding “The 1619 Project,” saying that “as professional historians, we have informed perspectives.” While there is “a legitimate and ongoing professional debate about the merits of some details of the ‘1619 Project’ document,” she continued, “even the professional historians who have been most critical of some of Ms. Hannah-Jones’s assertions in the ‘1619 Project’ have affirmed its rigor and academic integrity and supported her qualification for tenure.”
Historians are “especially sensitive to the obligation to revise narratives about the past as new evidence comes to light and as new perspectives illuminate formerly neglected issues,” Lindsay continued. “The historian who offers a sweeping reinterpretation of a large subject may generate argumentation and critique, but at the same time, this forces an entire field to question its standard assumptions and to engage in productive debate.”
The universitywide tenure and promotion committee also responded to Chapman’s appeal, saying in a statement that denying a tenure vote to Hannah-Jones sets a “dangerous precedent” and is “doing significant immediate and long-term harm to Carolina.”
“We cannot recruit -- or retain -- the world’s leading scholars when they fear that their work will be judged through any lens other than merit. And in the absence of world-class faculty, Carolina will cease to be a world-class institution and a jewel for the state of North Carolina."
Already three scholars of color have linked their departures from Carolina to the Hannah-Jones case. Another Black scholar, Lisa Jones, whom Carolina’s chemistry department had for years been trying to recruit, said she couldn’t come to Carolina while Hannah-Jones is denied tenure. Carolina’s new student body president, Lamar Richards, who is Black, has separately urged would-be students to look elsewhere due to the racial climate on campus. A majority of Carolina Black Caucus members present at a recent meeting also indicated that they’re actively looking for jobs elsewhere.
It’s unclear how the board will respond to Hannah-Jones’s attorneys. It has not indicated that it will hold a tenure vote anytime soon, if at all. And the University of North Carolina system’s Board of Governors -- which, according to NC Policy Watch, was indirectly involved in the Hannah-Jones case -- was apparently comfortable enough with the controversy to keep blocking another faculty appointment at Chapel Hill, that of Eric Muller. Muller, Dan K. Moore Distinguished Professor in Jurisprudence and Ethics, has tenure already, but the Board of Governors for the UNC Press unanimously reappointed him to that role this year. Similar to the Hannah-Jones case, however, the system board declined to hold a vote confirming his press appointment. The board has given no reason for this. But Muller and his supporters believe it is because he is an outspoken critic of the board, including for how it handled the Silent Sam Confederate monument matter at Chapel Hill.
Some on campus are hopeful that the board will consider Hannah-Jones’s case on or after July 14, when the body convenes with a new chair and new members, as scheduled.
Deb Aikat, an associate professor at Hussman, said that he and his colleagues “are earnestly hopeful that the UNC Chapel Hill Board of Trustees will do the right thing in awarding tenure to Nikole Hannah-Jones. That will help all of us focus on welcoming Nikole as a UNC Chapel Hill faculty. It’s high time we move on.”
Aikat said that Hussman professors “enrich journalism and media by empowering our students and empower our field with research insights. That’s what we do best. Anything else is a distraction. And, truth be told, the prevailing uncertainty over the tenure decision for Nikole Hannah-Jones has helped no one. UNC has gained media attention for all the wrong reasons. These developments are self-defeating.”