Today Nikole Hannah-Jones made it official: the Pulitzer Prize winning journalist is declining to return to her alma mater, UNC-Chapel Hill, to teach. Instead, she’ll create the new Center for Journalism and Democracy at Howard University in Washington, D.C.
At the heart of her decision: the rampant and well documented politicization of the UNC System that led the UNC Board of Trustees to refuse to vote on her tenure application in the first place.
The controversy over Hannah-Jones’s tenure is just the latest in a series of political and racial controversies faced by the school and the UNC System. The campus now faces a wave of Black faculty and staff leaving, many of whom are citing the politicization of the system and its persistent racial tone deafness. The university has recently seen multiple prominent Black scholars turn down opportunities to come to the school and students and their families say they’ve decided against coming to Chapel Hill or made the decision to transfer in the current environment.
To begin to fix that, Hannah-Jones said, the administration and governing boards need to listen to Black students and faculty. That includes elected student leaders, the Black Student Movement and Carolina Black Caucus. They have all let the school know what needs to be done to move forward, Hannah-Jones said. But they don’t feel they’re being heard.
Over the weekend, Hannah-Jones made a trip to North Carolina specifically to meet in person with student leaders and protesters who supported her in the tenure fight. Telling them she wouldn’t be coming to the university was difficult, she said, but they understood.
“Many of them, as they have said publicly, felt it would send the wrong message if I did come after the way the university treated me,” Hannah-Jones said.
Their fight continues, she said, and as a proud UNC alum she will remain on their side.
One of the student leaders continuing to fight for change in the new semester: Lamar Richards, student body president and member of the school’s board of trustees. Though new to the role, Richards was instrumental in forcing the board to finally take a vote on the tenure question. He petitioned for an emergency meeting of the board, rallying enough other trustees to make it happen as campus administration remained silent and some of his fellow board members were happy to leave the issue unresolved. He also calmed protesters at the tense board of trustees meeting. When no one from the board or university explained how and why the board moved into a closed session to discuss the tenure question, Richards explained the process and eased tensions as students, faculty and alumni faced off with board members.
“I’m so incredibly proud and in disbelief in some ways at the leadership of Lamar,” Hannah-Jones said. “I didn’t know Lamar until this happened. The person who has the least power on that board has operated with more courage and conviction than anyone else. The youngest member, the person with the least power was willing to stand up, call a meeting when no one else would do it and explain to students what was happening to try to deescalate when everyone in that room was supposed to be serving the students.”
In a message to the campus last week, Richards said the fight for a public vote on the question of tenure for someone as well qualified as Hannah-Jones illustrates the ongoing struggle at Carolina.
“The idea — the fact, rather — that students, faculty, staff, and alumni would have to come forward on behalf of a Black woman for simply pursuing recognition (via tenure) of her lifelong work makes clear to me one thing — racism is alive and kicking,” Richards wrote. “The idea or notion that this was simply about freedom of speech or academic freedom is false; this, my friends, is about the freedom to be Black in America.”
“In the days ahead, I am meeting with faculty, student, and staff leaders of color from across campus to strategize and gather comprehensive insights on ways to support the entire Black community here at Carolina,” Richards wrote. “Both the Chancellor and University administration are aware of this ongoing work and will have the chance for their words to match their actions by doing what is right and supporting the requests coming from these collective meetings.”
In some ways, Hannah-Jones said, seeing such strong student leadership makes the difficult decision not to return to the campus a bit easier.
“Because I know there is a strong activist core that will keep fighting,” she said. “What happened to me strengthens the platform on which they do that. It verifies, in a way that shouldn’t need verification, all the things that they say they’ve experienced on campus.”
Black students are struggling at Chapel Hill and aren’t getting the support they need from leadership, Hannah-Jones said. After decades of struggle to change the institution without support from its leaders, she said, it is not surprising some students and faculty are choosing to leave. Her own decision to join perhaps the most prestigious of historically black colleges and universities rather than return to Chapel Hill is part of a piece with decisions Black students and faculty are making, she said.
“I do think it’s important to show that we don’t necessarily need these institutions,” Hannah-Jones said. “We can walk away if we’re not treated the way we deserve to be treated. That’s also an important message to send to students.”