A top-tier journalism school rolled out the welcome mat for star New York Times reporter Nikole Hannah-Jones. Then partisan politics pulled the rug out from under her.
In April, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill hired Hannah-Jones for an endowed faculty position, the Knight Chair in race and investigative journalism. UNC’s board of trustees didn’t act on her application for tenure, sparking a nationwide uproar amid allegations of political interference.
NC Policy Watch, a left-leaning online news outlet, quoted a trustee speaking on condition of anonymity as saying the board wouldn’t consider Hannah-Jones for tenure because conservative groups complained about her work on The 1619 Project, a series in the New York Times Magazine that examined slavery’s role in colonial America and the Revolutionary War.
Hannah-Jones’ long-form essay introducing the project earned her the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for commentary. While reframing the fight for American independence as, at least in part, a defense of slavery sparked nuanced debate among historians and academics, right-wing pundits saw the project as a hit piece on the Founding Fathers and condemned it as “propaganda.”
In a Thursday press conference, Board of Trustees Chairman Richard Stevens said trustees wanted more time to review the tenure bid and claimed Susan King, dean of UNC’s Hussman School of Journalism and Media, opted to offer Hannah-Jones a five-year contract as professor of the practice, which doesn’t require board approval.
That conflicts with King’s account of the imbroglio. She expressed disappointment that the board didn’t grant tenure, noting she and the Hussman School faculty unanimously endorsed the application.
Political meddling is the only explanation for trustees’ trepidation that passes the smell test. Alternate theories, such as that the board was concerned about granting tenure to a first-time professor or that the lack of a doctorate degree hurt Hannah-Jones’ chances, simply don’t wash.
Most Knight chairs receive tenured appointments as full professors. Academic work history has never been a prerequisite, as the Knight Foundation’s endowments are meant to bring working journalists and news industry professionals into the classroom.
“Hannah-Jones, a 2003 master’s graduate of UNC, has equivalent academic credentials to the prior two chairs at the school,” Damon Kiesow, who holds the Knight chair in digital editing and producing at the University of Missouri, wrote in a statement co-signed by 22 other Knight professors. “Both received tenure upon appointment. The unequal treatment is clear in this case.”
Penelope Muse Abernathy, who served as Knight chair in journalism and digital media economics at UNC before joining Northwestern University’s Medill School as a visiting professor in January, holds a master’s in journalism and an MBA. She published groundbreaking research on newspaper closures, diminished civic life in the resulting news deserts and corporate-owned “ghost newspapers” without a Ph.D. designation after her name.
Hannah-Jones’ scholarship can be every bit as valuable as her predecessor’s work.
Whether trustees count themselves among The 1619 Project’s critics or were kowtowing to the right-leaning Board of Governors, which oversees the state university system, the board’s resistance spawned a PR nightmare for UNC, a prestigious research university long ranked among the “public ivies.”
“If it is accurate that this refusal was the result of viewpoint discrimination against Hannah-Jones, particularly based on political opposition to her appointment, this decision has disturbing implications for academic freedom, which is vital in allowing faculty members to voice divergent views and in avoiding casting what the Supreme Court called a ‘pall of orthodoxy’ over the classroom,” the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education’s Adam Steinbaugh wrote. “When decisions on academic tenure incorporate a form of political litmus test, this freedom is gravely compromised.”
Trustees ought to take those words seriously, as FIRE can claim unique credibility as a nonpartisan defender of student and faculty rights.
The organization supported criminology professor Mike Adams in his First Amendment lawsuit against the University of North Carolina at Wilmington for denying him a promotion to full professor. In 2014, a federal jury ruled in his favor, finding that UNC discriminated against Adams for his conservative views.
Though the board’s bungling has already tarnished UNC’s brand, trustees would be wise to grant Hannah-Jones tenure and prevent further reputational damage. It isn’t too late to right this wrong.