UNC-Chapel Hill Faculty Executive Committee urges trustees to vote on tenure for acclaimed journalist

The UNC-Chapel Hill Faculty Executive Committee held a special meeting Monday to discuss the Board of Trustees’ failure to grant tenure to acclaimed journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones. 

The committee unanimously passed a resolution asking the board to immediately take up the matter of tenure for Hannah-Jones.

“The Faculty Executive Committee strongly urges the Board of Trustees to uphold the long tradition of respect for recommendations from faculty bodies in hiring and tenure cases,” the committee wrote. “And to take up the matter of tenure for Nikole Hannah-Jones immediately, and to explain to the fullest extent possible, without violating the law, the reasons for its decision,”

As Policy Watch reported last week, Nikole Hannah-Jones, Pulitzer Prize-winner and creator of the 1619 Project was not granted tenure upon her hire at UNC as the Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism. The Knight Program at UNC has historically hired all of its professors with tenure. The board delayed a vote on tenure for Hannah-Jones. Board members said leaders on the board let the school’s administration know it would not be approved, leading to the five year contract. Policy Watch has agreed not to identify those board members so that they can discuss a confidential personnel matter.

Over the weekend Hannah-Jones removed her position with UNC-Chapel Hill from her bio on Twitter, leading some faculty and students to worry she is leaning toward walking away from the job.

“I think we need to do it immediately,” said Faculty Chair Mimi Chapman of getting an up-or-down vote of the board of trustees on tenure.  “[Hannah-Jones] is waiting. She will take another job.”

The committee spent the beginning of their meeting in closed session to discuss “confidential personnel matters,” but returned to open session to workshop their resolution.

The committee discussed their anger with the board of trustees for ignoring their recommendation for tenure, as well as their desire for the board to hold a vote as quickly as possible on the matter.

“I see no reason to hide the fact that we are outraged,” Eric Muller, law professor at UNC and member of the committee said.

UNC-Chapel Hill Faculty Chair Mimi Chapman in Monday’s meeting.

Board of Trustees Chairman Richard Stevens has repeatedly stressed the board has taken no action whatsoever on Hannah-Jones’ tenure. But members of the faculty executive committee said that doesn’t absolve them of responsibility.

“I think not taking an action is an action,” Faculty Chair Mimi Chapman said.

Tim Ives, UNC pharmacy professor and committee member, said if the board of trustees did not respond to their resolution they could use legal counsel to take the request to the UNC System office. The resolution would likely be reviewed by System President Peter Hans, the UNC Board of Governors and its University Governance Committee — all of which would be done in closed sessions.

“You would hope you’ve got a board of trustees and a chair that would at least respond with a rationale,” Ives said.  “That’s the bare minimum.”

Stevens and UNC Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz did not appear to be present at the meeting.

Last week Lamar Richards, UNC-Chapel Hill student body president and  member of the board of trustees, issued a statement demanding a board vote on tenure for  Hannah-Jones.

“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.”

Richards’ letter was the latest in a series of similar public statements from student, faculty and alumni groups, the National Association of Black Journalists, the Knight Foundation and Knight Chair professors from across the country. In a Monday statement on Twitter Susan King, dean of the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media, also urged the board to vote on tenure for Hannah-Jones.

Policy Watch reached out to Stevens and Guskiewicz for a response.

“University leaders are aware of the interest on this matter and will respond privately,” University Media Relations told Policy Watch.

N.C. Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger (R-Rockingham) and Gov. Roy Cooper have both been active behind the scenes as UNC-Chapel Hill navigates the latest in a series national controversies for the school, sources with direct knowledge of negotiations told Policy Watch Monday.

The UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees is appointed by the N.C. General Assembly and UNC Board of Governors, which is itself appointed by the legislature. The governor’s office played a part in that appointment process until 2016, when Republican Governor Pat McCrory lost the gubernatorial race to Cooper, a Democrat.  In the wake of Cooper’s victory, the GOP-led General Assembly stripped the governor’s office of his appointments to boards of trustees at the state’s universities.

“There are a lot of political interests here and obviously it would be in everyone’s interest to handle this without it being a further embarrassment,” one source with direct knowledge of negotiations said. “While there’s a lot of heat on this issue, there are also some people who feel like it’s a good time to see if they can press to get what they want out of it. This isn’t really what you’re supposed to do with a university system, hold up academic appointments for politics. But right now in this state, there’s nothing that isn’t political.”

Policy Watch intern Kyle Ingram is a student in the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media. Policy Watch reporter Joe Killian contributed to this report.

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