UNC Hussman faculty denounce continued inaction on tenure for Nikole Hannah-Jones

Faculty at the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media spoke out in a written statement Friday as the deadline to avoid a federal discrimination lawsuit arrived with no action by school’s board of trustees.

“It seems apparent that the UNC Board of Trustees has again failed to review Nikole Hannah-Jones’s dossier for appointment as the Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism with tenure, despite affirmation at all previous levels of rigorous review,” the faculty members wrote.

Thirty-seven UNC Hussman faculty members signed the statement, which called the board’s inaction “a blatant disregard for time-honored tenure procedures and for the university and Board of Trustees’ endorsed values of diversity, equity and inclusion.”

As Policy Watch first reported, the UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees decided to take no action on recommendations of tenure for Hannah-Jones from the faculty tenure committee, Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz and Provost Bob Blouin. Board members maintain the unusual move came as a result of conservative opposition to Hannah-Jones’s work. Among the high profile voices lobbying against Hannah-Jones behind the scenes was Walter Hussman, the Arkansas-based media magnate whose $25 million gift to the school led to it being named for him. In an interview with Policy Watch Hussman questioned the quality of the Hannah-Jones’s work, which has been awarded Pulitzer, Polk, Peabody and National Magazine Awards. He also mischaracterized an essay she wrote about the issue of reparations to Black Americans for slavery.

Hannah-Jones was offered the school’s Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism. Knight Chair professors at the school are media professionals, not academics, who bring their working knowledge of the industry to classrooms across the country. Previous Knight Chair professors at the school have all been granted tenure upon their appointment.

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.

The president and CEO of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which has given the university more than $131 million, wrote to the chairman of the school’s board of trustees to ask for answers in the case and to call for the board to approve Hannah-Jones’s tenure.

Hannah-Jones herself has made few public statements on the controversy since her legal counsel put the university on notice that she would be filing a federal discrimination lawsuit if an unconditional offer of tenure wasn’t forthcoming by Friday.

On Friday morning she posted a photo on Twitter of the framed statement that arrived in the mail commemorating her induction into the North Carolina Media & Journalism Hall of Fame. The honor felt bittersweet under the current circumstances, she suggested.

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. Read more

UNC mega-donor objected to Hannah-Jones essay on reparations for slavery

In the Policy Watch interview with Walter Hussman Jr. published Thursday, the Arkansas-based media magnate and UNC-Chapel Hill mega-donor details his opposition to the hiring of acclaimed journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones as the school’s Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism.

Walter Hussman Jr.

As Policy Watch has reported extensively, vocal conservative opposition to Hannah-Jones and The 1619 Project led to the current crisis over the UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees’ failure to vote on tenure for Hannah-Jones. Previous Knight Chair professors were tenured upon their appointment. Hussman’s behind-the-scenes conversations with top university officials were first reported by digital magazine The Assembly on Sunday.

This week, Hussman talked with Policy Watch about the objections to her work that he says drove his reservations about Hannah-Jones teaching at the school that bears his name. Among them are now familiar criticisms of the historical accuracy of The 1619 Project and Hussman’s belief that Hannah-Jones regularly takes sides on issues of public controversy — something Hussman believes is against the core principles of good journalism.

But Hussman also zeroed in on something less theoretical: his political and philosophical objections to Hannah-Jones’ writing on reparations to Black Americans for slavery.

Hussman specifically pointed to Hannah-Jones’s New York Times Magazine cover story from June 30 of last year, headlined “What is Owed.”

“When I read it, I had to read it a couple of times,” Hussman said. “Because I was kind of…well, I just had to read it a couple of times.”

Hussman said he devoted one of his five emails to UNC officials to the essay and his questions about it. Policy Watch has not seen that email, but Hussman described it in the interview.

“She was saying we need to use some of the funds to build Black communities and have schools that are largely Black,” Hussman said. “And I thought, ‘Wait a minute… what happened about the Civil Rights movement? What about Martin Luther King?’ I don’t know exactly… there may be some nuance to what she was saying there but I thought, ‘Holy Cow.’ I know there are people who advocate Black separatism, you know, in America. I don’t know if she’s one of them but I said, ‘Here are her words. What do they mean?'”

But the text of Hannah-Jones’s piece does not appear to argue for building largely Black schools, exclusive Black communities or any sort of racial separatism. In fact, the piece argues any form of reparations should include enforcement of existing civil rights laws that prohibit housing, employment and educational discrimination that enable segregation in neighborhoods, schools, workplaces and industries.

From the essay itself:

“Reparations would go to any person who has documentation that he or she identified as a black person for at least 10 years before the beginning of any reparations process and can trace at least one ancestor back to American slavery. Reparations should include a commitment to vigorously enforcing existing civil rights prohibitions against housing, educational and employment discrimination, as well as targeted investments in government-constructed segregated black communities and the segregated schools that serve a disproportionate number of black children. But critically, reparations must include individual cash payments to descendants of the enslaved in order to close the wealth gap.

The technical details, frankly, are the easier part. The real obstacle, the obstacle that we have never overcome, is garnering the political will — convincing enough Americans that the centuries-long forced economic disadvantage of black Americans should be remedied, that restitution is owed to people who have never had an equal chance to take advantage of the bounty they played such a significant part in creating.

This country can be remarkably generous. Each year Congress allocates money — this year $5 million — to help support Holocaust survivors living in America. In backing the funding measure, Representative Richard E. Neal, a Democrat from Massachusetts, said in 2018 that this country has a “responsibility to support the surviving men and women of the Holocaust and their families.” And he is right. It is the moral thing to do. And yet Congress has refused for three decades to pass H.R. 40, a bill to simply study the issue of reparations. Its drafter, Representative John Conyers Jr., a Michigan Democrat and descendant of enslaved Americans, died in 2019 — during the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first Africans enslaved in Virginia — without the bill ever making it out of committee.

There are living victims of racial apartheid and terrorism born in this country, including civil rights activists who lost their homes and jobs fighting to make this country a democracy, who have never received any sort of restitution for what they endured. Soon, like their enslaved ancestors, they will all be dead, too, and then we’ll hear the worn excuse that this country owes no reparations because none of the victims are still alive. Darity and Mullen call this the ‘delay until death’ tactic. Procrastination, they say, does not erase what is owed.”

Much of Hannah-Jones’s most celebrated journalism — including work that won her a MacArthur “Genius” grant, the George Polk and George Foster Peabody awards and multiple National Magazine Awards — is about the necessity of school integration, not separatism.

Major donor pressure revealed in Hannah-Jones tenure controversy as lawsuit deadline looms

UNC-Chapel Hill mega-donor Walter Hussman Jr. lobbied against the school hiring acclaimed journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones in the journalism school that bears his name, digital magazine The Assembly first reported over the weekend.

Nikole Hannah Jones

In e-mails obtained by reporter John Drescher, Hussman criticized Hannah-Jones’s work and said he was worried her hiring would bring controversy to and impact the reputation of the journalism school. In an interview with Drescher and later with WRAL, Hussman said his concern isn’t political but with the preservation of the principle of journalistic objectivity.

Hussman  and the school’s Dean Susan King “agreed to disagree” over whether Hannah-Jones would be good for the school and the $25 million he pledged to the school in 2019 isn’t in jeopardy over the disagreement.

“I didn’t pressure anybody,” Hussman told WRAL. “I care a great deal about the school, and these are my opinions, and I felt like it’s up to the university to make decisions … It’s not my decision, but I think I’d be kind of derelict in my duties if I thought they were making a mistake without at least telling them what I thought about it.”

Hussman is the millionaire publisher of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. His family’s company bought the Arkansas Democrat in the 1970s, installing him as publisher at age 27. Hussman instigated and ultimately won a newspaper war with the Arkansas Gazette, positioning his paper as a conservative alternative to the Gazette. Hussman’s family lost money in the fight for years until the Gazette was eventually bought by the Gannett newspaper chain, which badly mismanaged it. Ultimately Hussman’s company bought the Gazette and merged it with his own paper to create the Democrat-Gazette.

The revelation of Hussman’s lobbying efforts came after Hannah-Jones’s attorneys set a Friday, May 4 deadline for the school’s Board of Trustees to vote on tenure for their client or face a federal discrimination lawsuit.

PW exclusive: Deadline set for lawsuit in Nikole Hannah-Jones tenure controversy

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has until Friday to offer tenure to acclaimed journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones or face a federal lawsuit, according to documents obtained by Policy Watch.

On Thursday, attorneys with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and the law firms Levy Ratner and Ferguson Chambers & Sumter sent a letter to Charles Marshall, the school’s vice chancellor and general counsel. The letter laid out Hannah-Jones’ case and demanded UNC-Chapel Hill make good on what they said was its initial offer of a tenured position for Hannah-Jones as the Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism at the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media.

“We intend to bring litigation to vindicate Ms. Hannah-Jones’ rights under federal and state law,” the attorneys wrote. “This letter is to demand that UNC take immediate action to remedy its conduct to avoid suit by making an unconditional offer to Ms. Hannah-Jones of a tenured appointment as full professor no later than June 4, 2021.”

The four page letter, published below, said “UNC’s actions to effectively deny tenure to Ms. Hannah-ones, in contravention of multiple written and verbal representations to her, constitute viewpoint discrimination and race-based employment discrimination and retaliation.”

As Policy Watch first reported last week, the board failed to approve tenure for Hannah-Jones, a winner of the prestigious George Polk and  George Foster Peabody awards and Pulitzer Prize for her journalism. She was instead hired on a five year fixed-term contract — a striking departure from precedent. Previous Knight Chairs at UNC have been hired with tenure.

Sources on the board told Policy Watch that trustees had political objections to Hannah-Jones’s work and faced pressure from conservatives to prevent approval of her tenure. Board members described the five-year contract as a “work-around” negotiated to prevent the tenure vote from coming to the board, where debate would quickly have become political.

Board chairman Richard Stevens said last week the matter never came to a full vote of the board because University Affairs Committee Chairman Chuck Duckett asked that it be put on hold. Board members had concerns about Hannah-Jones coming from a non-academic background, Stevens said. All previous Knight Chair professors have been media professionals, not academics. The positions are designed to bring those professionals and their industry knowledge into classrooms at universities across the country.

Stevens also said neither UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz nor Provost Bob Blouin recommended Hannah-Jones for tenure. UNC Chapel Hill Faculty Chair Mimi Chapman called that “de facto false,” as Hannah-Jones’s tenure application could not have gone from faculty level to the trustee committee level without their recommendation.

This week, in the of wake national headlines and letters of protest from faculty, students, alumni and academics from across the country, the school’s provost re-submitted Hannah-Jones to the board for tenure consideration. That move came after a public demand from Lamar Richards, UNC-Chapel Hill student body president and member of the board of trustees, that the board hold a vote on tenure for Hannah-Jones.

As Policy Watch reported this week, Hannah-Jones hired legal counsel and announced she was considering a federal action for discrimination.

The letter provides a timeline of events that occurred from Hannah-Jones’ recruitment to the board’s decision not to hold a vote on her tenure application.

From the letter:

“As a UNC alumna, Ms. Hannah-Jones was receptive when approached by Dean Susan King about the prospect of joining the faculty of the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media as a Knight Chair. Ms. Hannah-ones was told more than once, in writing, that she would be hired by UNC as a full professor with tenure in her position as Knight Chair. Indeed, every Knight Chair at UNC since 1980 has been granted tenure upon appointment, many of whom, like Ms. Hannah-Ones, were practicing journalists at the time of their appointments. In reliance upon the terms offer to her, Ms. Hannah-Jones accepted employment as Knight Chair for Race and Investigative Journalism and took concrete steps to set up a residence in North Carolina.

Upon review of Ms. Hannah-Jones’s completed tenure application, the School of Journalism’s review committee unanimously recommended tenure for Ms. Hannah-Jones, which was approved by unanimous vote of the School of Journalism’s faculty, and also approved by the University’s review committee. Ms. Hannah-Jones was recommended for tenure not only by Dean King, but also by Provost Robert A. Blouin and Chancellor Kevin M. Guskiewicz. A vote of the Board of Trustees concerning tenure for Ms. Hannah-Jones was scheduled for November 12, 2020 and Ms. Hannah-Jones secured and furnished a residence in Chapel Hill in preparation for her employment at UNC, to begin January 2021. The Board of Trustees, however, chose not to take action on Ms. Hannah-Jones’ tenure application at its November 2020 meeting. On information and belief, the Board of Trustees’ refusal to act on a tenure application, which had been overwhelmingly approved at every level of review, including approval by the UNC Chancellor, is unusual if not unprecedented.

Following that meeting, Ms. Hannah-Jones did not receive any explanation fo the Board of Trustees’ failure to act on her tenure application. When the Trustees met again in January 2021, the Board again declined to act on her tenure application without explanation. In late February 2021, Ms. Hannah-Jones was told that she would be offered a five-year contract instead of being granted tenure. Having already made significant personal and professional arrangements to join the UNC faculty in reliance upon the promise of tenure, and without a full understanding of the reasons for this major reversal, Ms. Hannah-Jones reluctantly accepted the fixed-term contract.

It has now become apparent that the Trustees’ denial of tenure to Ms. Hannah-Jones, which breaks from UNC’s longstanding, established practice to grant tenure to Knight Chairs upon hire, was motivated by a desire to suppress her research, writing and speech related to the history and legacy of American slavery and its continuing ramifications in entrenched racial inequalities and racial injustices in America, as exemplified by the 1619 Project. UNC Officials, including individuals on the Board of Trustees, may choose to personally agree with the conservative pundits and elected officials who have been vocally hostile and antagonistic to Ms. Hannah-Jones’ professional work and achievements, but they are prohibited from furthering, promoting, or imposing their political opinion and viewpoints through officials acts on behalf of UNC. In taking an adverse employment action to chill Ms. Hannah-Jones’ expression of First Amendment protected speech, UNC has engaged in unlawful viewpoint discrimination, in violation of 42 U.S. Code § 1983, as well as federal and state law and policy. In fact, it has long been the law in North Carolina that personnel decisions must be free of political influence. See G.S.§  126-14.2. Nowhere is this more important than in the university setting, where principles of academic freedom are foundational. Here, Ms. Hannah-Jones’ work is not only protected by the principles of academic freedom but also by the principles of journalistic integrity and freedom of the press.”

The tenure controversy has already generated national headlines and intensely negative publicity for the university, with condemnations from prominent academics, artists and athletes across the country. Celebrated musicians, filmmakers, actors and literary luminaries have suggested they may decline invitations from the school and urge philanthropic foundations to reconsider supporting it as a result of what they call an attempt to “suppress free thought about racism and its historical roots.” Last week, Raleigh’s News & Observer published a two page ad bought by 1,619 UNC-Chapel Hill alumni in support of Hannah-Jones’s tenure.

“We are 1,619 University of North Carolina alumni outraged by the Board of Trustees’ failure to approve a tenured professorship for UNC aluma and founder of The 1619 Project, Nikole Hannah-Jones,” the alumni wrote in the ad. “Dismissing a list of merits that includes winning the Pulitzer Prize, Peabody Award and MacArthur “Genius” Grant is an attempt to penalize Nikole Hannah-Jones for her groundbreaking and unvarnished reporting of American history. We demand that the Board of Trustees immediately revisit this matter, grant tenure as recommended by the appropriate faculty, Dean and Provost, and restore the integrity of our university.”

If Hannah-Jones moves forward with a federal lawsuit, it could be the latest in a series of embarrassing and costly court battles for the university over its handling of political and racial issues.

In February, the UNC Board of Governors settled a lawsuit brought by DTH Media Corp., the parent company of student newspaper The Daily Tar Heel.

The paper sued the system and the UNC Board of Governors over a negotiated settlement with the NC Sons of Confederate Veterans in which the system transferred possession of the ‘Silent Sam’ Confederate statue and more than $2.5 million to the group. The lawsuit argued that the board crafted the deal in secret and presented it to the public without holding any public meetings or discussions.

That deal provided the Sons of Confederate Veterans with the money to buy the rights to the statue from the United Daughters of the Confederacy; that agreement was later invalidated by an Orange County Superior Court judge, but not before the group spent a portion of the settlement money. Questions have also been raised as to whether the UDC had the right to sell the statue.

The deal was scrapped due to opposition mounted by UNC-Chapel Hill students and alumni, who argued successfully in court against the legal team mounted by UNC-Chapel Hill and the UNC System.

As part of the settlement, documents were released that revealed high-level UNC-Chapel Hill administrators were part of negotiating the deal with the NC Sons of Confederate Veterans, despite public assurances to the contrary by the school’s chancellor. Those revelations led a faculty group at the school to call for Guskiewicz’s resignation.

Media and law experts have also pointed to another past lawsuit against the university system involving faculty tenure as a potential precedent in the Hannah-Jones matter.

Tori Ekstrand, a media law professor in the UNC Hussman school, has suggested the political opposition to Hannah-Jones’s tenure seems remarkably similar to the case of conservative UNC-Wilmington professor Mike Adams in the years-long legal fight over speech-based discrimination in which he ultimately prevailed against the university system.

“A reminder to the BOT and the UNC system that the 4th Circuit stands firmly behind academic freedom,” Ekstrand wrote, providing a link to a summary of Adams’ legal case.

“Does the UNC system remember this case?” Ekstrand wrote.

Read the entire letter from Hannah-Jones’s attorneys below. Read more