UNC-Chapel Hill faculty members demand acclaimed journalist be appointed to tenured position

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

Faculty members at UNC Chapel Hill’s Hussman School of Journalism and Media released a statement Wednesday demanding the university’s board of trustees grant tenure to acclaimed journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones.

As Policy Watch reported Wednesday, Hannah-Jones was approved for tenure as a Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism by the faculty tenure committee. The school’s board of trustees did not take action to approve the decision. Instead, Hannah-Jones was offered a five year contract with the school in what board of trustee members described to Policy Watch as a “work around” to avoid the political controversy around her appointment and the necessity of the board to sign off on it.

“We demand explanations from the university’s leadership at all levels,” the statement, signed by more than two dozen Hussman faculty members, says. “Nikole Hannah-Jones does necessary and transformative work on America’s racial history. The national politicization of universities, journalism, and the social sciences undermines the integrity of and academic freedom within the whole University of North Carolina system.”

In a Wednesday interview, UNC Board of Trustees Chairman Richard Stevens said the question of Hannah-Jones’ tenure never came to the board for an official vote.

“That part of your story was wrong,” Stevens told Policy Watch Wednesday.

Stevens did not initially respond to a request from Policy Watch on the issue this week, but spoke to the issue before Wednesday’s board of trustees committee meetings.

Board of Trustees members who spoke to Policy Watch this week did not say the board had voted down her tenure but that a “work around” had been reached to prevent the issue from coming to a vote on the board in the first place.

It is not uncommon for board members to have informal conversations with each other and with university officials about matters before they come to a board vote, those board members said. With UNC-Chapel Hill chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz and board members aware of the volatility of the question, they said, it was deemed best not to bring the issue to an official vote.

In a Sunday message to UNC Hussman faculty, Dean Susan King described the chain of events.

“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. “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.”

“The Board of Trustees has the authority to approve all tenured (lifetime) appointments,” King wrote. “I was told the board was worried about a non-academic entering the university with this designation.”

Stevens said he could not say whether the board would have supported tenure for Hannah-Jones because the issue never came before them.

With Hannah-Jones now under a five year contract, Stevens said, he did not anticipate the board taking up the matter unless it is officially brought to a vote at some future date.

Representatives from University Relations said Guskiewicz would not answer questions on the issue Wednesday but would take questions during the media availability scheduled for after Thursday’s full board of trustees meeting.

“The failure to offer Hannah-Jones tenure with her appointment as a Knight chair unfairly moves the goalposts and violates long-standing norms and established processes relating to tenure and promotion at UNC Chapel Hill,” Wednesday’s faculty statement statement said.

The letter also points out that the preceding two Knight Chairs at UNC immediately received tenure upon their appointment.

“The failure to tenure Hannah-Jones is especially disappointing given that just last year the university’s Board of Trustees unanimously endorsed ‘Carolina Next: Innovations for Public Good,’ UNC-Chapel Hill’s strategic plan.,” the faculty wrote in their statement. “The plan calls on the university to ‘prioritize diversity, equity, and inclusion in teaching, research and service, and in hiring, evaluation, retention and promotion of under-represented faculty and staff.'”

“We call on the university’s leadership to reaffirm its commitment to the university, its faculty and time-honored norms and procedures, and its endorsed values of diversity, equity, and inclusion,” the statement said. “The university must tenure Nikole Hannah-Jones as the Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism.”

UNC journalism student Kyle Ingram is a summer intern at NC Policy Watch. Joe Killian contributed to this report.

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UNC-Chapel Hill faculty members demand acclaimed journalist be appointed to tenured position