Speakers at conservative think tank seminar denounce Nikole Hannah-Jones hire, reporting on tenure controversy 

Peter Wood of the conservative National Association of Scholars speaks at Monday’s event (YouTube screenshot)

The John Locke Foundation, a North Carolina-based conservative think tank, held an online seminar on the Nikole Hannah-Jones tenure controversy on Monday at which speakers lambasted the work of journalists covering the case and the decision of UNC-Chapel Hill to hire Hannah-Jones in the first place. 

Hannah-Jones was hired as the Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism at UNC Hussman — the university’s journalism school. Conservatives have long criticized her work on the Pulitzer Prize-winning 1619 Project, which centers American history around the institution of slavery. 

The panel, which included no people of color, debated the accuracy of Hannah-Jones’ work and whether slavery was the primary foundation of the United States. 

Jenna Robinson, president of the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal — another conservative think tank, criticized the “sensationalism” of the reporting on the tenure debate and claimed that many news outlets got the story wrong by saying she was “denied” tenure. 

“An organization here in North Carolina, later found out that the position was untenured and incorrectly assumed that it was because of conservative criticism,” Robinson said. 

It’s worth noting that Policy Watch did not use the word “deny” to describe the board’s action when it broke the news that Hannah-Jones would not be receiving tenure. Several national news outlets, such as the New York Times, did use the word “deny” in their stories. Policy Watch’s article also did not make the claim that Hannah-Jones not receiving tenure because of conservative criticism, but did feature multiple Board of Trustees members who said the decision not to grant tenure was because of politics. 

As Policy Watch reported, the Board of Trustees at UNC did not take a vote on tenure for Hannah-Jones after faculty and administrators completed a rigorous recommendation process. Last week, Hannah-Jones threatened legal action against the university if it did not hold a vote on tenure by Friday — a deadline that has now passed. 

While it is technically inaccurate to say Hannah-Jones was “denied tenure” because the Board of Trustees did not vote on tenure, the trustees have repeatedly resisted calls to hold a vote on the matter, which effectively produced the same result.

Panelists at today’s event also repeatedly claimed Hannah-Jones did not have the academic merit needed to be awarded tenure, without mentioning that every previous Knight Chair at UNC had comparable academic experience to Hannah-Jones and was hired with tenure. 

“She’s an academic celebrity, seemingly without the academics,” Matthew Spalding, Vice President for Washington Operations at Hillsdale College said. 

Hannah-Jones has garnered national publicity for her work on the 1619 Project. She also received her Master’s Degree from UNC-Chapel Hill. Spalding was the Executive Director of former President Trump’s Advisory “1776 Commission,” which produced a report that argues 1776 was the true, original founding date of the United States. 

“What is great about America is that a nation which included slaveholders could begin the nation by saying that all men are created equal,” Spalding said. “And that the playing of those principles ultimately led to abolition.”

Panelists frequently cited alleged historical inaccuracies within the 1619 Project as evidence that Hannah-Jones was undeserving of tenure. Perhaps most notably, critics have cited a claim made in one 1619 Project essay that identified the preservation of slavery as a primary motivation of colonists in waging the American Revolution. 

The Times later amended the story to say that “some of the colonists” fought to preserve slavery. This from that statement:

“We stand behind the basic point, which is that among the various motivations that drove the patriots toward independence was a concern that the British would seek or were already seeking to disrupt in various ways the entrenched system of American slavery.

…If the scholarship of the past several decades has taught us anything, it is that we should be careful not to assume unanimity on the part of the colonists, as many previous interpretive histories of the patriot cause did. We recognize that our original language could be read to suggest that protecting slavery was a primary motivation for all of the colonists. The passage has been changed to make clear that this was a primary motivation for some of the colonists.”

UNC responded to Hannah-Jones’ impending lawsuit on Friday.

“We look forward to continued dialogue with her counsel,” Joel Curran, vice chancellor of communications said in a statement.

Policy Watch intern Kyle Ingram is a student in the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media.

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