PW Exclusive: UNC student body president calls for special meeting of BOT on Nikole Hannah-Jones tenure

Lamar Richards, student body president at UNC-Chapel Hill and member of the school’s board of trustees, has called for a special meeting of the board to discuss the tenure status of Nikole Hannah-Jones.

Lamar Richards

Under the board’s bylaws a special meeting must be called within ten days if six members of the board make a request through a formal petition. It is not yet clear how many members of the board will join Richards in his request. But on Wednesday a board member told Policy Watch that a special meeting is “very likely.”

In his letter to board Secretary Artis Neal and Assistant Secretary Clayton Somers, Richard asks for the meeting on or before June 30. Hannah-Jones was originally scheduled as the school’s Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism July 1.

As Policy Watch reported this week, Hannah-Jones’s legal team told the school this week that she will not begin teaching at the school without a tenure vote. Their letter to the school says she has been denied a board vote as a result of discrimination and political interference.

“I am the first trustee to my knowledge to petition for a special-called meeting,” Richards said in a statement Wednesday. “This, however, is not the only way for a special-called or emergency meeting to be called. The chair of the board can do that at any time. I am hopeful, based on some of my conversations with colleagues on the board, that five individuals will join me in petitioning to the board to support the need for a special-called meeting.”

In his letter, Richards said he is making his formal petition for a special meeting “for the sake of our university’s future, not as the sole corrective measure for inclusion efforts on campus but as the first step to ignite this critical phase of bolstering inclusion for Carolina.”

Read Richards’ full letter requesting a special meeting of the board of trustees here.

PW Exclusive: Nikole Hannah-Jones will not join UNC-Chapel Hill faculty without tenure

Nikole Hannah-Jones will not join the faculty at UNC-Chapel Hill without tenure, according to a letter from her legal team to the university this week.

According to the letter, Hannah-Jones will not begin her position as Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism on July 1, as scheduled, and will not take the position without tenure.

The letter makes clear that Hannah-Jones has not withdrawn her application for tenure and does not intend to do so.

As Policy Watch has reported, the UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees declined to vote on tenure for Hannah-Jones, acclaimed journalist and creator of “The 1619 Project,” when she was recruited for the position. She was then offered a five-year fixed-term contract — a striking departure from precedent. Previous Knight Chairs at UNC, who are by definition media professionals rather than career academics, have been hired with tenure.

Nikole Hannah-Jones (Bell Tower photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)S

Sources on the board told Policy Watch trustees had political objections to Hannah-Jones’s work and faced pressure from conservatives to prevent her hire, with or without tenure. Among the influential voices warning against the hire was Walter Hussman, the Arkansas media magnate whose $25 million donation to the journalism school led to it being named for him.

Trustees described the five-year contract as a “work-around” negotiated to prevent the tenure vote from coming to the board, where university leaders expected a political fight over Hannah-Jones’s work, much of which deals with history and race in America.

In their letter, Hannah-Jones’s legal team argues information was withheld from her when she signed her fixed-term contract with the school.

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,” they wrote. “In light of this information, Ms. Hannah-Jones cannot trust that the University would consider her tenure application in good faith during the period of the fixed-term contract. Such good faith consideration for tenure was understood to be an essential element of the fixed-term contract when Ms. Hannah-Jones agreed to enter into it. In light of the information which has come to her attention since that time, she cannot begin employment with the University without the protection and security of tenure.”

The letter also lays out the likely legal thrust of Hannah-Jones’s argument in a threatened federal lawsuit over the board’s decision not to consider her for 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 United States and North Carolina Constitution; 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,” her legal team wrote. “Under these circumstances, any appointment of Ms. Hannah-Jones without tenure is unacceptable.”

Controversy over the board’s failure to hold a tenure vote led to widespread condemnation from students, faculty, alumni and some of the school’s largest donors and funding partners.

The faculty tenure committee re-submitted Hannah-Jones’s tenure application to the board with the support of the school’s provost and Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz. But despite  a looming federal discrimination lawsuit from Hannah-Jones, the board has taken no action.

Two members of the board of trustees spoke with Policy Watch Tuesday, requesting that their names be withheld so that they could discuss confidential personnel matters. Both said they have not heard anything about a vote of the full board on the tenure issue. That frustrates members of the board who would like to see an up-or-down vote on the issue as pressure mounts on the school from students, faculty, alumni and funders.

Last week the Carolina Black Caucus reported 70 percent of its members said they are considering leaving the university.

The school has lost multiple high profile Black recruits, faculty and staff members since the controversy began. Professors are also reporting they have spoken with Black students at the undergraduate and graduate level who have decided not to return to the university as a result of the university’s actions in the Hannah-Jones case.

“At the end of the month the tenure of some board members is up and some new ones are going to come onto the board,” one trustee said. “I think they just want to let that happen, so they don’t have to deal with it. But I think that strategy could cost the school a good new faculty member, it is costing us faculty members right now who are leaving over all of this, and it is damaging the reputation of the school.”

Another trustee said some on the board and in leadership at the UNC System level seemed to think “they could have their cake and eat it too” by having Hannah-Jones begin in July without tenure. They could then argue that she had already begun teaching at the school and so the controversy was overblown, the trustee said. While avoiding public discussion of the controversy and his part in it, UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz has repeatedly said he is glad Hannah-Jones will begin at the school July 1.

“But this letter makes it clear she’s not going to begin the job that way and give them what they want on that,” the trustee said. “They want her to take the job under different and lesser conditions than her white predecessors did, and I think continuing to push that is dangerous for the university’s reputation and it’s a bad legal strategy. If we don’t deal with this sooner rather than later we are going to be fighting a legal fight over it while we have Black students and faculty leaving the university in large numbers, which we are already seeing. How do we think we are going to recruit top students and faculty under these conditions?”

On Saturday Mimi Chapman, chair of the school’s faculty, shared an open letter to the Carolina community. In the letter she confirmed, through her own conversations with school administration, much of the reporting on the controversy the Board of Trustees and Guskiewicz have either not addressed publicly or have contradicted without evidence since Policy Watch first reported the board’s inaction on Hannah-Jones’s tenure.

“Despite calls for action from the Faculty Executive Committee, from individual faculty members, from the Council of Chairs, from alumnae, from donors, and from funders to act without delay on the tenure case of Nikole Hannah-Jones, thus far, the Board of Trustees, to which our University is entrusted, has remained stubbornly silent,” Chapman said. “The reputational threat to our University grows by the day and we remain in the headlines for all the wrong reasons.”

“I ask that the campus community speak loudly and with one voice,” Chapman wrote in the open letter. “If you or your department or school has not yet spoken out, now is the time to do so. We need every dean and every department chair on this campus to make a statement, send it to the BOT, and put it on your websites; we need student groups, particularly those that espouse free speech and thought diversity to speak up; athletes and coaches, we need you to take a stand; and concerned citizens who want your children’s degrees from UNC to continue to stand for excellence, please call your representatives and write to your local newspapers. Make sure that all such communications are conveyed to the Board of Trustees.”

“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,” Chapman wrote. “Such a path takes us back to times when scholars from Socrates to Galileo were punished for their ideas. That is a path where light and liberty die. Don’t let it. Use your voice. Keep going. Stand strong.”

Departments across the university have responded to Chapman’s call. Student Body President Lamar Richards, who also serves as a member of the board of trustees, has strongly and publicly advocated for the board to vote on tenure for Hannah-Jones. On Wednesday evening he will hold the first meeting of the Campus President’s Council, where the Hannah-Jones controversy is expected to be discussed. Guskiewicz has been invited to that meeting.

The Black Student Movement is promoting a student rally on the issue outside the campus’s South Building, home to its administrative offices, on Friday.

Read the full letter from Hannah-Jones’s legal team below.


U.S. House Ag leader seeks permanent scholarship funding for 1890 land-grant colleges, including North Carolina A&T

WASHINGTON—Leaders from 1890 land-grant colleges laid out to the House Agriculture Committee Wednesday how a fresh infusion of scholarship funding provided by Congress has helped those historically Black institutions educate and train the next generation of agriculture workers.

Committee Chairman David Scott, (D-Ga.), said that their testimony would help members of the committee work to make the $80 million scholarship program permanent, rather than reauthorizing it through the farm bill every five years.

“We are moving to make this scholarship program permanent and in order to do that we want to make sure we have the evidence to present that,” said Scott, a graduate of one of the 1890 institutions, Florida A&M University. “I want to be able to get on the record, all of what this scholarship program means to each of you.”

Scott, along with several other lawmakers, worked to provide the scholarship funding in the 2018 farm bill. The funds were divided among the 19 land-grant Historically Black Colleges and Universities, which span 18 states and were designated land-grant colleges under the Morrill Act of 1890.

“This is a much-needed investment in the future of our food production,” Scott said in his opening statement.  “Furthermore, investing in the 1890 Centers of Excellence is essential as they mold talented young minds for our food and agricultural sector, to ensure the success and prosperity of our smaller farmers and ranchers, and fighting hunger across the globe.”

Dr. Makola Abdullah, the president of Virginia State University, said that funding from the scholarships has allowed many first-generation students to earn a degree in the agriculture field without having to take on student loans.

“This program has allowed us to recruit and train the next generation of agricultural leaders who will continue to keep our food supply chain safe,” he said.

Dr. Paul Jones, the president of Fort Valley State University in Fort Valley, Ga., said that his school has been able to award 76 full scholarships to students, and has avoided having to increase tuition this year.

The top Republican on the committee, Rep. Glenn “GT” Thompson, (R-Pa.), raised concerns about broadband availability at these institutions and the rural communities they serve.

Rep. Alma Adams

He also asked witnesses what other improvements Congress could make for the land-grant schools as members work on the upcoming farm bill.

“Today, especially as we look toward a post-pandemic economy, any conversation about education must also include the issue of connectivity,” he said in his opening statement. “This is an issue I am working on extensively to move the needle and close this gap, especially for our rural communities.”

Committee Vice Chair Alma Adams, (D-N.C.), added that 1890 institutions have provided essential research and training in the agriculture field and “yet these institutions still face major issues,” such as needing major building repair and renovations.

“It’s a priority of mine to make sure that these institutions continue to have resources to unlock the potential of millions of students across the country,” she said. Read more

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UNC Hussman faculty denounce continued inaction on tenure for Nikole Hannah-Jones

Faculty at the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media spoke out in a written statement Friday as the deadline to avoid a federal discrimination lawsuit arrived with no action by school’s board of trustees.

“It seems apparent that the UNC Board of Trustees has again failed to review Nikole Hannah-Jones’s dossier for appointment as the Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism with tenure, despite affirmation at all previous levels of rigorous review,” the faculty members wrote.

Thirty-seven UNC Hussman faculty members signed the statement, which called the board’s inaction “a blatant disregard for time-honored tenure procedures and for the university and Board of Trustees’ endorsed values of diversity, equity and inclusion.”

As Policy Watch first reported, the UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees decided to take no action on recommendations of tenure for Hannah-Jones from the faculty tenure committee, Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz and Provost Bob Blouin. Board members maintain the unusual move came as a result of conservative opposition to Hannah-Jones’s work. Among the high profile voices lobbying against Hannah-Jones behind the scenes was Walter Hussman, the Arkansas-based media magnate whose $25 million gift to the school led to it being named for him. In an interview with Policy Watch Hussman questioned the quality of the Hannah-Jones’s work, which has been awarded Pulitzer, Polk, Peabody and National Magazine Awards. He also mischaracterized an essay she wrote about the issue of reparations to Black Americans for slavery.

Hannah-Jones was offered the school’s Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism. Knight Chair professors at the school are media professionals, not academics, who bring their working knowledge of the industry to classrooms across the country. Previous Knight Chair professors at the school have all been granted tenure upon their appointment.

The school’s handling of the tenure decision has generated international headline and condemnation from a broad range of student, faculty and alumni groups. The Knight Foundation has urged the board to approve tenure for Hannah-Jones, as have Knight Chair professors and journalism deans from across the country.

This week a prominent chemistry professor declined to come to UNC-Chapel Hill due to the controversy, as reported by Indy Week.

The president and CEO of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which has given the university more than $131 million, wrote to the chairman of the school’s board of trustees to ask for answers in the case and to call for the board to approve Hannah-Jones’s tenure.

Hannah-Jones herself has made few public statements on the controversy since her legal counsel put the university on notice that she would be filing a federal discrimination lawsuit if an unconditional offer of tenure wasn’t forthcoming by Friday.

On Friday morning she posted a photo on Twitter of the framed statement that arrived in the mail commemorating her induction into the North Carolina Media & Journalism Hall of Fame. The honor felt bittersweet under the current circumstances, she suggested.