UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees grant tenure to Nikole Hannah-Jones

The UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees approved tenure for acclaimed journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones on Wednesday, ending a month-long saga that has outraged students, faculty and journalists across the country.

In a public vote, the board approved Hannah-Jones’s tenure application 9-4 after a closed session of nearly three hours.

Voting “no” were members Haywood Cochrane, Allie Rae McCullen, John Preyer and David Boliek.

Hannah-Jones issued a written statement shortly after the vote, leaving it unclear if she would accept the position.

“I want to acknowledge the tremendous outpouring of support I have received from students, faculty, colleagues, and the general public over the last month – including the young people who showed up today at the Board of Trustees meeting, putting themselves at physical risk,” Hannah-Jones wrote. “I am honored and grateful for and inspired by you all. I know that this vote would not have occurred without you.”

“Today’s outcome and the actions of the past month are about more than just me,” Hannah-Jones wrote. “This fight is about ensuring the journalistic and academic freedom of Black writers, researchers, teachers, and students. We must ensure that our work is protected and able to proceed free from the risk of repercussions, and we are not there yet. These last weeks have been very challenging and difficult and I need to take some time to process all that has occurred and determine what is the best way forward.”

Board Vice Chair Gene Davis spoke briefly after the vote, to occasional snickers and jeers from demonstrators who had urged the board to approve tenure well before this week.

“Let me be very clear,” Davis said. “Our mottos is ‘Lux, Libertas’ — light and liberty. We remain committed to being a light shining brightly on the hill. We embrace and endorse academic freedom, open and rigorous debate and scholarly inquiry.”

“Our University is not the place to cancel people or ideas,” Davis said. “Neither is it place for judging people and calling them names like ‘woke’ or ‘racist.’ Our university is better than that.”

Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz said he was glad the matter had finally been resolved.

“Professor Hannah-Jones will add great value to our university,” Guskiewicz said. “Our students are eager to learn from her and we are ready to welcome her to the Carolina faculty as soon as possible.”

Nikole Hannah-Jones

Governor Roy Cooper also weighed in shortly after the vote, praising the decision.

“UNC Trustees did the right thing today by offering tenure to award winning journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones,” Cooper said in a written statement. “Our students will benefit from exploring thought-provoking issues and our campus and our campus reputation will be enhanced helping us keep and attract a diverse array of acclaimed scientists, researchers, doctors and scholars.”

Walter Hussman, the UNC-Chapel Hill alum and Arkansas newspaper magnate, released his own statement Wednesday. Hussman’s $25 million donation to the journalism school led to it being named after him, but his behind-the-scenes lobbying against Hannah-Jones’s hire sparked controversy.

In his statement Wednesday, Hussman reiterated that he merely expressed concerns about the school hiring Hannah-Jones and did not intend to infringe on academic freedom.

“I respect that academic freedom requires that the authority for hiring faculty rests solely with the University,” Hussman wrote. “The University has now voted to grant tenure to Ms. Nikole Hannah Jones. I look forward to meeting her and discussing journalism. Our plan is to continue to support the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media in advocating for the core values.”

In her own statement Susan King, Dean of the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media, thanked the community for rallying around Hannah-Jones — and the journalism school — as they pushed for a vote from the board of trustees.

“It has taken longer than I imagined, but I am deeply appreciative that the board has voted in favor of our school’s recommendation to tenure Nikole Hannah-Jones as the Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism,” King wrote. “I knew that when the board reviewed her tenure dossier and realized the strength of her teaching, service and professional vision they would be moved to grant tenure.”

“She is a journalist’s journalist, a teacher’s teacher and a woman of substance with a voice of consequence,” King wrote. “Hannah-Jones will make our school better with her presence. She will deepen the University’s commitment to intellectual integrity and to access for all.”

“A thank you to the greater Carolina community of students, faculty, staff and alumni who have stood by our school, the centrality of journalism to democracy, the ideals of the University — and to Hannah-Jones herself,” King wrote. “This outpouring of support has reinforced the very principles of the nation’s first public university and will carry us forward.”

“Today, UNC’s motto — Lux Libertas — is not simply two Latin words,” King wrote. “Light and liberty define the ideas that have guided the University through turbulence since 1789 and will continue to define us going forward.”

That ongoing turbulence was on display Wednesday as UNC-Chapel Hill police shoved student demonstrators,  forcibly removing them from meeting ahead of the closed-session discussion of on tenure for Nikole Hannah-Jones. They also ejected demonstrators from the building during the closed session, keeping them in the parking lot as temperatures topped 90 degrees.

The demonstrators — a large group of faculty, alumni and student activists — had gathered in support of Hannah-Jones. When the board moved to go into closed session, several demonstrators refused to leave. Some mocked board members and Guskiewicz.

“Y’all are an embarrassment and I am disgusted to be a student at this university,” Taliajah Vann, president of UNC’s Black Student Movement said to the board. 

After several minutes, police began to shove the demonstrators out of the board room. BSM’s Vice President, Julia Clark, said one of the officers punched her in the face. Clark later retweeted a video of the scene filmed by Spectrum News which appears to show the punch. 

Going into closed session while discussing legal and personnel matters is standard procedure for the board, both to legally protect the private information of job or tenure candidates and to preserve privileged conversations with attorneys.

As Policy Watch has reported, Hannah-Jones, acclaimed journalist and creator of the 1619 Project, was not granted tenure after being hired as the Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalist at UNC — a position that has historically come with tenure upon hire. 

Outside the boardroom, demonstrators spoke while police blocked the entrance to the meeting. 

“What have we done to you?” Vann said. “Did we enter this space violently? Were we screaming? Were we unruly? And where are we? Outside. Because they don’t exist to serve us, they exist to serve them and they expect us to serve them.” 

Some of them criticized UNC Student Body President Lamar Richards for voting “yes” on the motion to go into closed session. 

Last week, Richards petitioned the board to hold a special meeting to vote on tenure for Hannah-Jones. 

A few minutes later, Richards called one of the demonstrators and addressed the crowd on speaker phone, saying that Hannah-Jones herself had requested the board discuss her tenure in closed session. 

He later put out a thread on Twitter clarifying that the decision to go into closed session was not necessarily requested by Hannah-Jones, but made to protect her regardless. 

After speaking with Richards, the demonstrators moved outside. 

Hannah-Jones later clarified on Twitter that her legal team did not request the closed session, but that it was normal procedure to do so. However, she said, this should have been explained to the demonstrators beforehand.

She also requested the names of the individuals who were shoved out of the meeting by police.

Following the board’s adjournment, demonstrators began to speak on a bullhorn. 

“I don’t want you ever to say that this University is great when the only great thing about this university is standing right here,” Clark said, motioning to the demonstrators. “Everything else in this room has made his university unbearable, traumatic and toxic for every Black student that’s been here.” 

“You sat by and watched while your students were beaten,” she continued. 

Board members quickly began filing out once the demonstrators started speaking, but Davis and Guskiewicz remained. Police swarmed around the demonstrators but stopped short of physically removing them. 

Davis agreed to meet with the BSM next week to discuss their demands for racial equity on campus.

Breaking: UNC Chancellor and trustees respond to Nikole Hannah-Jones tenure controversy

UNC Board of Trustees chairman, Richard Stevens (Screenshot from virtual press conference)

After days of controversy surrounding UNC-Chapel Hill’s failure to appoint acclaimed New York Times Magazine reporter Nikole Hannah-Jones to a tenured professorship, on Thursday the chair of the school’s board of trustees, Richard Stevens, placed responsibility for the decision on the dean of the school’s journalism department.

When Hannah-Jones’s tenure package came to the board’s University Affairs Committee, Stevens said, committee chair Chuck Duckett requested more time to vet Hannah-Jones. Then, he said, the journalism school changed course.

“It is my understanding that Dean Susan King elected to pursue a fixed-term appointment that did not come back to the University Affairs Committee, as none of them ever do,” Stevens said at a virtual press conference on Thursday. “Nikole Hannah-Jones agreed to a fixed-term faculty position. We will be welcoming her to the Hussman School faculty as a Knight Distinguished Chair this fall.”

Nikole Hannah-Jones

A Board of Trustees member with direct knowledge of negotiations said board members made it obvious they would not be approving Hannah-Jones for tenure. Conservative opposition to Hannah-Jones’s work had made it untenable. At that point, the trustee said, Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz and Provost Bob Blouin worked to convince Hannah-Jones to take a five year, non-tenured contract as a way to get around the board of trustees. The trustee asked Policy Watch not to identify them so that they could discuss a confidential personnel process.

Stevens’ account contradicts the story King told UNC Hussman faculty in a letter last week, as well as what she told Policy Watch and other news outlets.

“Nikole will join us July 1 as a fixed-term Professor of the Practice, with the option of being reviewed for tenure within five years,” King wrote in a Sunday message to her faculty. “When her case was presented, the Board of Trustees did not act on tenure, and she was offered a five-year fixed-term contract by the university.”

UNC Journalism School Dean Susan King

In an interview with Policy Watch earlier this week, King said she was not sure why the board did not move forward with approving tenure for Hannah-Jones, saying the decision was disappointing. Not offering tenure to so prominent and accomplished a journalist in a fraught political climate could hurt the school’s reputation, she said, and have a chilling effect on future recruiting.

King could not be reached immediately after Thursday’s press conference. 

When asked what concerns in particular Trustee Duckett had regarding Hannah-Jones, Stevens gave no definitive response. 

“As trustees, we take seriously our responsibility for approving tenure,” he said. “We’re talking about a lifetime position here, we do not enter into it lightly. And so it’s not unusual for members of the board, or in particular, the chair of the committee, to have questions for clarification about background, particularly candidates that don’t come from a traditional academic type background.”

Hannah-Jones was hired as the Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism. The Knight Chair program, sponsored by the Knight Foundation, brings working media professionals into schools across the country. Most, including former Knight Chairs at UNC, do not come from an academic background.

King, the journalism school’s dean, said all past Knight Chairs at UNC had been hired with tenure — making Hannah-Jones’s non-tenure contact a departure from precedent.

“There are over 20 of these around the country,” Guskiewicz said of the Knight Chair positions. “While many of these, maybe perhaps most of them, are in tenured positions, it is our understanding that there are others that are not and so that is an option.”

Student leaders and faculty members at UNC condemned the decision, writing letters of protest to the Board of Trustees to demand that Hannah-Jones be granted tenure. 

Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz (Screenshot from virtual press conference)

Guskiewicz did not contradict Stevens’ account of events and struck a balance between addressing the concerns of faculty and respecting the authority of the Board. 

“I steadfastly support the academic freedom of our faculty,” Guskiewicz said. “I also respect the role our Board of Trustees play through our model of shared governance. Through the state constitution, the UNC System and the Board of Governors — they have authority over the UNC System.” 

Stevens said it was possible that Hannah-Jones could be offered tenure before her 5-year contract ends, depending on her “academic progress.”

UNC journalism student Kyle Ingram is a reporting intern at NC Policy Watch.