Tenure struggle ends with Hannah-Jones charting new course

Published 11:55 pm Tuesday, July 6, 2021

By Tom Foreman Jr. snd Aaron Morrison
Associated Press

WINSTON-SALEM — A Black investigative journalist who won a Pulitzer Prize for her groundbreaking work on the bitter legacy of slavery in the U.S. announced Tuesday that she will not join the faculty at the University of North Carolina following an extended tenure fight marked by allegations of racism and conservative backlash about her work.

Nikole Hannah-Jones will instead accept a chaired professorship at Howard University, a historically Black school in Washington, D.C.

The dispute over whether North Carolina’s flagship public university would grant Hannah-Jones a lifetime faculty appointment had prompted weeks of outcry from within and beyond its Chapel Hill campus. Numerous professors and alumni voiced frustration, and Black students and faculty questioned during protests whether the predominantly white university values them.

And while UNC belatedly offered her tenure last week, Hannah-Jones said in an interview with The Associated Press that the unfairness of how she was treated as a Black woman steered her toward turning the offer down.

“I wanted to send a powerful message, or what I hope to be a powerful message, that we’re often treated like we should be lucky that these institutions let us in,” said Hannah-Jones, who earned a master’s degree from UNC. “But we don’t have to go to those institutions if we don’t want to.”

Hannah-Jones — who won the Pulitzer Prize for her work on The New York Times Magazine’s 1619 Project focusing on America’s history of slavery — noted that she hadn’t sought out the job, and was recruited by UNC’s journalism dean before her tenure application stalled amid objections by a powerful donor and concerns by conservatives about her work.

“I wasn’t seeking to go into academia,” Hannah-Jones told AP. “It was this particular job at this particular place that I wanted to go and give back to the university that helped me build the career that I’ve built.”

The 45-year-old Hannah-Jones will instead accept a tenured position as the Knight Chair in Race and Journalism at Howard, which also announced Tuesday that award-winning journalist and author Ta-Nehisi Coates is joining its faculty. Coates, who won a National Book Award for “Between the World and Me,” and Hannah-Jones have both been given MacArthur “genius” grants for their writings.

Hannah-Jones’ tenure application was submitted to UNC’s trustees last year, but it was halted after a board member who vets the appointments raised questions about her nonacademic background. Instead, she was initially given a five-year contract, despite the fact that her predecessors were granted tenure when appointed. Last week the trustee board, after weeks of mounting pressure, finally voted to offer tenure.

UNC journalism school Dean Susan King, who supported Hannah-Jones throughout her application, said in a statement that she hopes “that UNC can learn from this long tenure drama about how we must change as a community of scholars in order to grow.”

The university’s enrollment is approximately 60% white and 8% Black.

More than 30 faculty members of the Hussman School of Journalism and Media signed a statement Tuesday saying they supported Hannah-Jones’ decision and decrying “the appalling treatment of one of our nation’s most-decorated journalists by her own alma mater.”

“We will be frank: It was racist,” the statement said.

Asked if she agreed with their assessment, Hannah-Jones told AP that “the facts speak for themselves.”

“If there is a legitimate reason for why someone, who has worked in the field as long as I have, who has the credentials, the awards, or the status that I have, should be treated different than every other white professor who came before me, outside of race, I would love to hear that explanation,” she said. “I haven’t heard it yet.”

Hannah-Jones’ and Coates’ Howard appointments are supported by nearly $20 million donated by three philanthropic foundations and an anonymous donor, gifts meant to bolster Howard’s investment in Black journalists, the university said.

“At such a critical time for race relations in our country, it is vital that we understand the role of journalism in steering our national conversation and social progress,” Howard President Wayne A. I. Frederick said in a news release.

Coates celebrated his return to Howard, which is his alma mater.

“This is the faculty that molded me. This is the faculty that strengthened me,” Coates said. “Personally, I know of no higher personal honor than this.”

In her written statement, Hannah-Jones cited political interference and the influence of a powerful donor to the journalism school, a reference to Arkansas newspaper publisher Walter Hussman. He has acknowledged in past interviews that he emailed university leaders challenging her work as “highly contentious and highly controversial.”

Hussman, whose name adorns the UNC journalism school after he pledged a $25 million donation, said in a phone interview Tuesday that he still has concerns about The 1619 Project but that he respects Hannah-Jones.

“I really felt a sense of regret that we were never able to get together and never had a chance to sit down and talk to her,” he said.

What excites Hannah-Jones most about her Howard appointment, she said, is the opportunity to help mold a new generation of journalists to serve “as the truth tellers in our democracy.”

“Unfortunately, for far too long, the institutions that are training Black journalists … haven’t been able to get the type of resources they needed, to really compete and gain entry into newsrooms at the rates that they should. And I believe that we can change that.”

“While it’s unfortunate how this came about, and I’m deeply saddened by what happened with my alma mater, this is not a consolation prize,” she said of her new position at Howard.

“This hopefully also sends a message to other Black folks, who’ve gotten to a certain status in their career, that we can come home and build our own.”