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.

NC’s governor lifts most statewide pandemic restrictions

Governor Roy Cooper

After months of reminding the public to mask-up and keep their distance, Governor Roy Cooper announced Friday that North Carolina would be lifting its gathering limits, social distancing requirements, and indoor mask mandate in most circumstances.

The news comes one day after the Centers for Disease Control announced Thursday a shift in federal guidelines, allowing fully-vaccinated Americans to shed their masks both indoors and outdoors.

“This is a big step forward in living our lives the way they were before the pandemic,” Gov. Cooper said.

There will continue to be an indoor mask requirement on public transportation, in childcare settings, schools, camps and in certain public health settings.

Just over 51% of the state is now partially vaccinated  and 45.5% are fully vaccinated against COVID-19.

Click below to listen to the governor explain why they are making this change now:

The governor acknowledged that there are those who are unvaccinated who may use this as an excuse to stop taking safety precautions.

“Get vaccinated now. And if you won’t listen to me, ask your doctor. Do what your doctor tells you,” the governor urged.

Health and Human Services Secretary Mandy Cohen said her department remains committed to its expansion strategy — making the vaccines readily available statewide.

State officials had hoped to lift the restrictions when 66% of North Carolinians had been partially vaccinated.

And while that milestone is still a long ways off, Cohen believes the state can reach its goal with the help of the business community.

HHS Sec, Mandy Cohen

“Some are offering incentives to their own employees to get vaccinated – time off, some are offering bonus pay,” said Dr. Cohen. “We’ve already heard about free donuts, free beer. I really appreciate businesses stepping forward and helping us raise awareness and incentivize folks getting a vaccine.”

Even with today’s shift, NCDHHS is recommending businesses post signage reminding guests to socially distance and wear a face covering if they are not fully vaccinated, and remind employees to self-monitor for symptoms of COVID-19.

It’s worth noting that businesses may choose to continue to require that their customers wear masks.

Masks will still be strongly recommended by the state for everyone at large crowded indoor gatherings such as sporting events and live performances.

And for the time being masks will be mandatory in schools.

“Just starting yesterday (Thursday) our 12-15 years are now eligible. They are starting to get vaccinated, but we know it is going to take some time. That still leaves a large population of our student body unvaccinated.”

Cohen said the state will follow the CDC’s guidance while working to get as many shots in arms as possible.

“This is a virus that has been with us for over a year now. It is going to continue to be with us,” she cautioned.

Click here to read Gov. Cooper’s Executive Order 215 lifting many of the COVID mandates.

Bill requiring phonics-based approach to teaching reading becomes law

Photo: Adobe Stock

Gov. Roy Cooper on Friday signed into law a controversial bill requiring a phonics-based approach to teaching students to read.

Despite his veto of similar legislation in 2019, Cooper said in a statement that Senate Bill 387 will help students and teachers.

“Learning to read early in life is critical for our children and this legislation will help educators improve the way they teach reading,” the governor said. “But ultimate success will hinge on attracting and keeping the best teachers with significantly better pay and more help in the classroom with tutoring and instructional coaching.”

Senate leader Phil Berger, (R-Rockingham County) sponsored SB 387. It is supposed to fix deficiencies in the state’s “Read to Achieve” law he championed in 2012 to ensure all students read on grade level by the end of third grade.

But after spending more than $150 million on the initiative, reading scores have not improved.

“I’m skeptical of any approach from Phil Berger after his first Read to Achieve bill resulted in third grade reading being the only EOG [end-of-grade] subject where test scores have actually fallen,” said Kris Nordstrom, a senior policy analyst with NC Justice Center’s Education Law Project. “We know that depriving schools of resources and just threatening 8 and 9-year-old children with retention is a failed strategy. Yet this bill retains those core, failed strategies.”

Policy Watch is also a project of the NC Justice Center.

The new law requires teachers to receive training in the “science of reading,” which is a body of research that explains how we learn to read.

Teaching reading requires phonics, associating sounds with letters, in addition to  phonemic awareness, vocabulary developing, reading fluency and reading comprehension, some experts agree.

State Superintendent Catherine Truitt said last month that the data show that North Carolina must change its approach to reading instruction.

“Before COVID, our data show that two-thirds of eighth graders in North Carolina do not read proficiently when they start high school,” Truitt said. “We know already that the slide will have occurred post-COVID. We’ve seen it already with our third-grade data.”

Other experts are critical of relying heavily on phonics to teach reading.

“Doubling down on phonics alone has never worked to produce better readers,” Gay Ivey, a UNC Greensboro professor and literacy expert, told the Raleigh News & Observer’s Editorial Board.

Cooper also signed House Bill 82 into law. The Summer Learning Choice for NC Families law requires school districts to create summer learning recovery and enrichment programs to address learning loss students experienced as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“This pandemic has challenged students and teachers like never before,” Cooper said. “Providing a summer opportunity for academic growth plus mental and physical health will help schools begin to address those challenges.”

Sen. Tillis to undergo surgery for prostate cancer

Senator Thom Tillis revealed Monday that he will undergo surgery next week following a diagnosis of prostate cancer.

North Carolina’s junior senator says the cancer was detected early and he expects to make a full recovery.

Prostate cancer is one of the most common cancers in American men with about 248,530 new cases diagnosed each year, according to the American Cancer Society.

The 60-year-old Republican notes that he was ‘blessed’ to have had the cancer show up in a routine screening.

Annual physical exams are just one of the preventive benefits covered under the Affordable Care Act.

Read Senator Tillis’ full statement on his health below:

Equity task force hears from “the father of environmental justice”

Robert Bullard, known as “the father of environmental justice,” reinforced the interconnectedness of transportation, segregated housing, climate change, and pollution on the health and economic well-being of Black Americans in a meeting with a state task force this week.

Gov. Roy Cooper started the Andrea Harris Social, Economic, Environmental, and Health Equity Task Force last year. He told members this week that some of the policy recommendations they delivered in December would be reflected into his state budget proposal.

Bullard, the distinguished professor of urban planning and environmental policy at Texas Southern University, is the author of 18 books including Dumping on Dixie. First published in 1990, Dumping on Dixie discusses the importance of the national protest in the 1980s against dumping in Warren County  soil contaminated with toxic PCBs  to the environmental justice movement.

Black Americans and Latinos are less likely to live in a household with a car, which impacts employment, evacuation in a disaster, and the ability to get to a grocery store, Bullard told the task force.

“Not having a car can mean lack of access and mobility,” he said.

Transit system cuts have a disproportionate impact on Black Americans and Latinos.

“If you don’t have transportation, you are subject to a higher unemployment rate,” he said.

Black Americans are more likely to live in urban “heat islands” and breathe polluted air, Bullard said. Studies link air pollution with higher death rates from COVID-19.

“Zip code is still the best indicator of health and well-being,” he said.

In the transition to a clean energy economy, it is important to look for business opportunities for “those who have historically been left behind,” he said.

Historically black colleges and universities should have business incubators, Bullard said, and students should be trained for jobs in the changing economy.

“Understand, we have to get it right,” Bullard said. “We’re not going to have a lot of chances to fix it along the way. We have to get it right, right out of the chute.”

RTI  International has been hired to develop an implementation plan for the task force proposals.