Breaking: UNC Chancellor and trustees respond to Nikole Hannah-Jones tenure controversy

UNC Board of Trustees chairman, Richard Stevens (Screenshot from virtual press conference)

After days of controversy surrounding UNC-Chapel Hill’s failure to appoint acclaimed New York Times Magazine reporter Nikole Hannah-Jones to a tenured professorship, on Thursday the chair of the school’s board of trustees, Richard Stevens, placed responsibility for the decision on the dean of the school’s journalism department.

When Hannah-Jones’s tenure package came to the board’s University Affairs Committee, Stevens said, committee chair Chuck Duckett requested more time to vet Hannah-Jones. Then, he said, the journalism school changed course.

“It is my understanding that Dean Susan King elected to pursue a fixed-term appointment that did not come back to the University Affairs Committee, as none of them ever do,” Stevens said at a virtual press conference on Thursday. “Nikole Hannah-Jones agreed to a fixed-term faculty position. We will be welcoming her to the Hussman School faculty as a Knight Distinguished Chair this fall.”

Nikole Hannah-Jones

A Board of Trustees member with direct knowledge of negotiations said board members made it obvious they would not be approving Hannah-Jones for tenure. Conservative opposition to Hannah-Jones’s work had made it untenable. At that point, the trustee said, Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz and Provost Bob Blouin worked to convince Hannah-Jones to take a five year, non-tenured contract as a way to get around the board of trustees. The trustee asked Policy Watch not to identify them so that they could discuss a confidential personnel process.

Stevens’ account contradicts the story King told UNC Hussman faculty in a letter last week, as well as what she told Policy Watch and other news outlets.

“Nikole will join us July 1 as a fixed-term Professor of the Practice, with the option of being reviewed for tenure within five years,” King wrote in a Sunday message to her faculty. “When her case was presented, the Board of Trustees did not act on tenure, and she was offered a five-year fixed-term contract by the university.”

UNC Journalism School Dean Susan King

In an interview with Policy Watch earlier this week, King said she was not sure why the board did not move forward with approving tenure for Hannah-Jones, saying the decision was disappointing. Not offering tenure to so prominent and accomplished a journalist in a fraught political climate could hurt the school’s reputation, she said, and have a chilling effect on future recruiting.

King could not be reached immediately after Thursday’s press conference. 

When asked what concerns in particular Trustee Duckett had regarding Hannah-Jones, Stevens gave no definitive response. 

“As trustees, we take seriously our responsibility for approving tenure,” he said. “We’re talking about a lifetime position here, we do not enter into it lightly. And so it’s not unusual for members of the board, or in particular, the chair of the committee, to have questions for clarification about background, particularly candidates that don’t come from a traditional academic type background.”

Hannah-Jones was hired as the Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism. The Knight Chair program, sponsored by the Knight Foundation, brings working media professionals into schools across the country. Most, including former Knight Chairs at UNC, do not come from an academic background.

King, the journalism school’s dean, said all past Knight Chairs at UNC had been hired with tenure — making Hannah-Jones’s non-tenure contact a departure from precedent.

“There are over 20 of these around the country,” Guskiewicz said of the Knight Chair positions. “While many of these, maybe perhaps most of them, are in tenured positions, it is our understanding that there are others that are not and so that is an option.”

Student leaders and faculty members at UNC condemned the decision, writing letters of protest to the Board of Trustees to demand that Hannah-Jones be granted tenure. 

Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz (Screenshot from virtual press conference)

Guskiewicz did not contradict Stevens’ account of events and struck a balance between addressing the concerns of faculty and respecting the authority of the Board. 

“I steadfastly support the academic freedom of our faculty,” Guskiewicz said. “I also respect the role our Board of Trustees play through our model of shared governance. Through the state constitution, the UNC System and the Board of Governors — they have authority over the UNC System.” 

Stevens said it was possible that Hannah-Jones could be offered tenure before her 5-year contract ends, depending on her “academic progress.”

UNC journalism student Kyle Ingram is a reporting intern at NC Policy Watch.

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