UNC-Chapel Hill student body president demands board of trustees vote on tenure for acclaimed journalist

Lamar Richards, UNC-Chapel Hill Student Body President and member of the UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees.

UNC-Chapel Hill Student Body President Lamar Richards is demanding the school’s board of trustees take a vote on tenure for Nikole Hannah-Jones.

Richards, who was sworn in this week as the student representative on the board, called on fellow board members to hold a vote in a statement late Friday addressed to UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz, Provost Bob Blouin and Board chairman Richard Stevens.

“If we truly want transparency, harmony, and success at Carolina, you all will act swiftly to get the matter of her tenure before our Board in a Special called meeting to discuss further the merits of her application and candidacy – in open session (if legally allowed, once receiving her consent),” Richards wrote. “We have a duty to this University to uphold the values we all hold so dear.”

“While our Board was not responsible for rejecting her tenure, Kevin, Bob, and Richard: you three were and continue to be single-handedly responsible for delaying and denying Nikole’s right for her application for tenure to be heard in formal capacity before our Board,” Richards wrote.

As Policy Watch reported this week, the school backed away from offering tenure to Hannah-Jones as its Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism. Previous Knight chairs were tenured positions. But Hannah-Jones — winner of the Peabody, Polk and Pulitzer Prizes as well as a MacArthur Foundation “Genius” Grant — was instead offered a five-year fixed contract for the position.

Though Hannah-Jones had the support of students, faculty and administration at the school, the UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees did not act on a recommendation that she be granted tenure.

Sources on the board said the move was prompted by conservative criticism of Hannah-Jones’s work on “The 1619 Project,” a long-form journalism effort that, as the Pulitzer Center put it, “challenges us to reframe U.S. history by marking the year when the first enslaved Africans arrived on Virginia soil as our nation’s foundational date.” Hannah-Jones, who is Black, conceived of the project and was among multiple staff writers, photographers and editors who put it together.

Opposition to the the school’s failure to offer Hannah-Jones tenure has led to national headlines and condemnations from the student government, faculty, Knight Chairs in journalism from across the country, the local NAACP, Carolina Black Caucus, the National Association of Black Journalists and  Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE).

The UNC-CH Faculty Executive Committee announced a special meeting Monday, May 24 at 10:30 a.m. to discuss “recent Board of Trustees actions regarding tenure.”

Read Richards’ full statement below:

Dear Kevin, Bob, and Richard:

I hope this letter finds you well. Before I begin, I would like to acknowledge that today I write to you as both a Trustee of the Board and as Carolina’s Student Body President. I am not sure what happened nor what conversations took place prior to my arrival on the board on Thursday, May 20, 2021. However, I would like to make clear that as a Trustee it is my job to make decisions in the best interest of the entire University – students, faculty, and staff alike. And, as Student Body
President, I remain both invested and dedicated to advocating on behalf of more than 30,000 students.

I write concerning the matter of Nikole Hannah-Jones’ employment with this University. For so long—too long—the students of Carolina have paid the price for a University that has continuously disregarded their trust, pushed aside their passions, and remained entrenched in scandal after scandal.

The time has come to be vigilant, just, and equitable in our leadership and decision-making. I say “our” realizing that I have only just joined the Board, yet I take ownership and responsibility for every decision made here on out. And, most importantly, I take ownership for when I choose to remain silent and allow policy, procedure, and justice to be subsided.

The tenure process here at Carolina, similar to most universities across the country, is led by faculty leaders. They determine who they believe is worthy of having tenure; in this instance, they determined that Nikole was in fact worthy of such a distinction. It was then the responsibility of the Board to hear the application of her tenure, on time, without delay. I have faith in both faculty leaders and the integrity of the process in place to determine tenure.

Therefore, it is not our job to send an individual back to faculty but rather to take action on the matter in a formal vote upon receiving a recommendation for tenure. The model of shared governance is supposed to mean that while there may be disagreements between students and administration or faculty and administration, the policies and procedures put in place to uphold our democratic values should and must never be subverted, especially not by continuing to delay a vote or by taking a matter off of the agenda simply because of dissent or disagreement with the matter.

Allow me to summarize the most valuable insights:

  1. The faculty determined someone was worthy of tenure and submitted this individual to
    Dean King.
  2. Dean King made a formal recommendation to Bob for review.
  3. Bob, after conducting ample research and thoroughly reviewing the recommendation, as
    with every candidate for tenure, decided to proceed with recommending Nikole’s
    candidacy to the Board of Trustees.
  4. After receiving the recommendation, the Board asked for more time to review, but an
    agreement was reached between Nikole and the School of Journalism prior to another Board Meeting.

Let us be very clear: it remains an issue of the Board on whether Nikole receives tenure and it is both our mandate and charge to consider that fact in a formal vote. To act as though her coming to Carolina or that the agreement in place is a done deal is a string of excuses embedded in both cowardice and oppression. We have a chance to make clear that Carolina values transparency, shared governance, and ideals of democracy.

As such, I am asking the following:

  1. Bob, I ask that you re-submit Nikole as a candidate for tenure to our Board immediately
    as you once initiated in January. If you cannot do this outright, I ask that you do this as an
    amendment to her original contract.
  2. Once received, Richard, I am asking that you as the current Chair of the Board take up
    this tenure recommendation / contract amendment as an official matter of the Board by
    placing it on the agenda at a special called meeting.
  3. Most importantly, I am asking that consent be received from Nikole to discuss both her
    personnel record and candidacy for tenure in open session.

Please understand that I do not make this request lightly, but rather to move our University forward in the right direction. The only way to do that is with steadfast, decisive decision-making. In my honest opinion, the Board should have heard the request of her tenure when it was first given to the Board. It is both a disservice and an overreach of the Board to intentionally prolong and neglect to take action on a matter simply because of disagreement or dissent with the individual or topic at hand – that is what our body is for, to vote on all matters placed before us whether hard, easy, difficult, or controversial. Our job is not to intentionally back channel or to subvert the process of an issue coming to a vote.

That being said, Nikole should have never been offered a contract premature to a vote on her tenure. Any agreement made as a result of the belief that the Board would not offer tenure was an agreement made under false  perceptions as the matter never officially made it to the agenda and it should have.

If we truly want transparency, harmony, and success at Carolina, you all will act swiftly to get the matter of her tenure before our Board in a Special called meeting to discuss further the merits of her application and candidacy – in open session (if legally allowed, once receiving her consent).

We have a duty to this University to uphold the values we all hold so dear.

While our Board was not responsible for rejecting her tenure, Kevin, Bob, and Richard: you three were and continue to be single-handedly responsible for delaying and denying Nikole’s right for her application for tenure to be heard in formal capacity before our Board.

While what happened before this point remains unclear and confusing, it matters less than what we decide to do regarding Nikole’s future at Carolina. If she should decide not to come to this University as a result of not being considered for tenure, Kevin: I want you to know that you would have lost my faith in your ability to lead this University alongside the
30,000 students I represent. Similarly, Bob, I want you to know that my faith in your ability to lead would have been lost as well. I recognize you have recently announced your stepping down as Provost, but your actions (and inactions), as well as yours, Richard, will follow you into your future endeavors. If this matter remains unresolved, I will support any efforts of the Faculty
Governance Council, Employee Forum, or both houses of the Undergraduate and Graduate & Professional Senate to take up a vote of ‘No Confidence’ in any and every individual responsible.

Yours for Carolina,
Lamar Gregory Richards
Student Body President
Trustee, UNC-CH Board of Trustees

Please note that at no point did I request for tenure to be extended as to not violate Conflict of Interest Guidance and Policy nor to indicate how I might vote; rather, I asked that this matter be taken to a vote officially in the space of the Board of Trustees.

Take additional note that all information contained within this document is a matter of public record, within the confinement of both the Integrity Memo and matters already disclosed to the public via the Press Conference that took place on Thursday, May 20, 2021.

 

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