In open letter artists, athletes, academics voice support for Nikole Hannah-Jones in tenure fight

An array of prominent athletes, artists, entertainers, journalists and academics penned an open letter Tuesday, saying UNC-Chapel Hill’s Board of Trustees has “failed to uphold the first order values of academic freedom and the free exchange of ideas” in its inaction on the tenure of acclaimed journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones.

As Policy Watch first reported last week, the board of trustees failed to act on a recommendation of tenure for the Peabody, Polk and Pulitzer Prize winning journalist as the school’s Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism. Board members said political objections to Hannah-Jones’s work led to the impasse and the school instead offering Hannah-Jones a non-tenured position under a five year contract.

Nikole Hannah Jones

“While the denial of tenure is egregious, it is not an isolated incident,” the open letter reads. “The same anti-democratic thinking that blocked Hannah-Jones’ appointment at her alma mater has also fueled efforts in state and local legislatures to ban the teaching of histories of slavery and its legacies through the 1619 Project. We call on all people of conscience to decry this growing wave of repression and to encourage a recommitment to the free exchange of ideas in our schools, workplaces, legislatures, and communities.”

The letter, published at The Root,  is signed by a star-studded group that includes writer and journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates, Yale University emerita History professor Glenda Elizabeth Gilmore, Johns Hopkins University History professor Martha S. Jones, filmmaker Ava DuVernay and Black Though, the rapper, actor and co-founder of The Roots. The signatories also include former UNC and current NBA athletes as well as academic and literary luminaries like Harvard University’s Henry Louis Gates and Union Theological Seminary’s Cornel West.

“We decry this rising tide of suppression and the threat to academic freedom that it embodies,” they wrote in the open letter. “Some of us will call upon our university administrators, public school superintendents, principals, teachers, and faculty unions and senates to issue statements of support for the freedom of ideas in the classroom. Others of us will urge philanthropic foundations to look twice at state institutions that betray that freedom. The artists, performers, and speakers below may decline invitations from institutions that suppress free thought about racism and its historical roots. We will take our views with us to the ballot box and hold local, state and national politicians accountable to the free exchange of ideas and academic freedom. We, our children, young scholars, and our country deserve no less.”

On Monday the UNC-Chapel Hill’s Faculty Executive Committee became the latest group to urge the board of trustees to take a vote on tenure for Hannah-Jones in a written statement.

Its statement followed those by the school’s 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).

Lamar Richards, UNC-Chapel Hill’s student body president and newest member of the board of trustees, also called for a board vote last week.

“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.”


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