Major funding partner calls for UNC-Chapel Hill to grant tenure to Nikole Hannah-Jones

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation is asking the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Board of Trustees for answers on its decision not to vote on tenure for acclaimed journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones for tenure.

In a letter obtained by Policy Watch this week, foundation CEO Richard Besser asked Board of Trustees Chairman Richard Stevens for assurances Hannah-Jones “is being treated fairly and equitably in decisions regarding her appointment” and strongly encouraged the board grant her tenure.

“As you may know, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) considers its grantees, including UNC, as important partners and allies in our pursuit of health equity,” Besser wrote. “Our success in achieving this vision depends not only on our conduct, but also on the integrity, honesty, and sound judgement of those with whom we work including UNC, its employees, and board. Our goal is to work with organizations and individuals who perform at the highest levels and share our commitment to ethical conduct and practices.”

Richard Besser, M.D., President and CEO of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

The foundation is a major long-time donor or grantee to the university. According to foundation records, it has given more than $131 million in grants to the university since 1972. In the last two years alone, the foundation has given more than $9 million in grants to the school for everything from COVID-19 data collection to support for clinical and research scholars.

“At the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, we are committed to achieving health and racial equity by dismantling cultural racism, ” Besser wrote. “A growing body of evidence shows the role that structural racism and discrimination play in health disparities for people of color in the United States. A recent New England Journal of Medicine article – which I co-authored with Dr. David Williams, a preeminent scholar on race and health and Dr. Risa Lavizzo-Mourey, former RWJF President and CEO – outlined the clear and historic pattern of disparities in the health of Black people and other minority groups as compared with White people in the United States. These findings are not the result of a singular act or policy, rather they stem from historic and systemic racist policies and structures which can be insidious or overt.”

“It’s in this context that we express our concerns – shared by UNC leadership, faculty, students as well as other funders and partners of the university – about the UNC Board’s failure to approve academic tenure to journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones,” Besser wrote. “Ms. Hannah-Jones has had a stellar career in journalism. Her outstanding work as a journalist and researcher has significantly contributed to raising up issues of historic interpersonal and structural racism in America.”

“To honor our commitment to ethical conduct and practices, we ask that the UNC Board help us understand the steps it is taking to ensure that Ms. Hannah-Jones is treated fairly and equitably in decisions regarding her appointment,” Besser wrote. “We are also seeking assurance that the board of UNC, as part of its fiduciary and oversight responsibilities, is actively engaged in monitoring policies and procedures to ensure that UNC’s workplace is nondiscriminatory and respectful.”

Hannah-Jones’s tenure application was resubmitted to the board last week. Her attorneys also informed the university that they intend to file a federal discrimination lawsuit if Hannah-Jones is not offered an unconditional offer of a tenured appointment by Friday. As the board would need to give 48 hours’ notice before a full board meeting and vote, the board seems unlikely to meet that deadline.

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.

Read Besser’s full letter to Stevens below.

Dear Mr. Stevens:

I am writing to you in your capacity as chairperson of the board of trustees of the University of North Carolina (UNC).

As you may know, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) considers its grantees, including UNC, as important partners and allies in our pursuit of health equity.

Our success in achieving this vision depends not only on our conduct, but also on the integrity, honesty, and sound judgement of those with whom we work including UNC, its employees, and board. Our goal is to work with organizations and individuals who perform at the highest levels and share our commitment to ethical conduct and practices.

At the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, we are committed to achieving health and racial equity by dismantling cultural racism. A growing body of evidence shows the role that structural racism and discrimination play in health disparities for people of color in the United States. A recent New England Journal of Medicine article – which I co-authored with Dr. David Williams, a preeminent scholar on race and health and Dr. Risa Lavizzo-Mourey, former RWJF President and CEO – outlined the clear and historic pattern of disparities in the health of Black people and other minority groups as compared with White people in the United States. These findings are not the result of a singular act or policy, rather they stem from historic and systemic racist policies and structures which can be insidious or overt.

It’s in this context that we express our concerns – shared by UNC leadership, faculty, students as well as other funders and partners of the university – about the UNC Board’s failure to approve academic tenure to journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones. Ms. Hannah-Jones has had a stellar career in journalism. Her outstanding work as a journalist and researcher has significantly contributed to raising up issues of historic interpersonal and structural racism in America.

To honor our commitment to ethical conduct and practices, we ask that the UNC Board help us understand the steps it is taking to ensure that Ms. Hannah-Jones is treated fairly and equitably in decisions regarding her appointment. We are also seeking assurance that the board of UNC, as part of its fiduciary and oversight responsibilities, is actively engaged in monitoring policies and procedures to ensure that UNC’s workplace is nondiscriminatory and respectful.

In closing, we believe Ms. Hannah-Jones is eminently qualified to join UNC’s Hussman School of Journalism and Media as a professor and Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism.

We strongly encourage the Board of Trustees to support the appointment of Ms. Hannah-Jones with full tenure privileges.

We look forward to receiving your response.

Sincerely,

Richard E. Besser, M.D.
President and CEO

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