In spring 2021, journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones unexpectedly became the centerpiece of a national story at the intersection of race, politics, and academic freedom. She rose to national fame as a primary writer and creator of the 1619 Project, published by The New York Times Magazine.
Her 1619 Project essay received U.S. journalism’s highest honor — a Pulitzer Prize. Hannah-Jones also holds about 50 other journalism and media-related awards and honors.
The faculty and leadership of The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Hussman School of Journalism and Media offered her academic tenure as the Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism. This prestigious role is reserved for journalists at the pinnacle of their profession. Her tenure application had the recommendation of school faculty, the dean, and the university’s provost and chancellor. Hannah-Jones also has a master’s degree in journalism from UNC-Chapel Hill.
Previous appointees to the Knight chair position received academic tenure. Media professionals — instead of career academics — usually hold this leadership role. However, the school’s board of trustees, the group empowered to make the final decision, declined to take action on Hannah-Jones’ tenure appointment.
In April 2021, Hannah-Jones received a five-year contract instead. Critics said the decision was motivated by political pressure against the content of her journalism work, which largely focuses on racial issues and racial injustice.
What Is Tenure?
In higher education, tenure is an indefinite appointment to an academic position. Individuals with academic tenure face termination only in extraordinary circumstances, such as closure of an academic department. Tenured employees may also face layoff if the school experiences a severe, sustained financial crisis. Tenure does not automatically protect professors who fail to perform basic aspects of their job or engage in criminal activity.
The Knight Foundation funds about two dozen academic positions in journalism at colleges nationwide. The journalism, community, and arts-focused nonprofit first endowed a professorship at UNC-Chapel Hill in 1984. The school, with the foundation’s approval, decides the chair’s topic focus during the five-year appointment. According to NC Policy Watch, most Knight chairs do not have an academic background. The school’s previous two chairs received tenure.
Supporters of university tenure say it protects the core role and mission of teachers in higher education — advancing and sharing knowledge. Without this protection, faculty would risk losing their jobs every time they said something, published something, or presented research that could potentially offend others.
Critics of university tenure say indefinite appointments prevent colleges from holding incompetent professors accountable. They also say that departments loaded with tenured faculty can shut out advancement opportunities for younger teachers. Legislators in several states have moved to reduce or eliminate the ability of publicly funded universities to offer tenure. People on both sides of the issue believe that the pandemic, which hurt colleges’ long-term financial outlook, will accelerate the decline of tenure.
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Tenure Denial Precedent
About one in five faculty members faces denial of university tenure in a typical year. According to one measure, Black women represented just 2.1% of tenured associate and full professors at public and private nonprofit four-year colleges in 2019. This equates to 5,221 tenured Black female professors out of 251,921 people in the profession.
Historically, Black, Latino, and Asian women were underrepresented in higher education doctoral programs, which typically serve as a pipeline for professors. While the situation has improved, as college faculty diversifies, one professor says that “publication standards and expectations to secure tenure-track jobs are rising.” People from historically underrepresented groups, she continued, bear the brunt of meeting those expectations.
A recent example of how differing expectations can potentially affect tenure decisions happened at the University of Virginia in 2020. UVA initially denied tenure for professors Paul Harris and Tolu Odumosu despite positive feedback from students and colleagues.
The denials spawned a Twitter hashtag, #BlackintheIvory. Black academics used the hashtag to share similar experiences of “having their work questioned and their contributions undercut more than their white colleagues’.” Both professors appealed. UVA reversed the denials a few months later. Harris left UVA for a position at Penn State in early 2021.
Another story of tenure denial recently emerged from Harvard. Cornel West, a political activist and Harvard professor of African American studies, recently left his position at the Ivy League university after tenure denial.
West told Harvard’s Crimson Review student newspaper that the university offered him an untenured chair position. West characterized the situation of an untenured Harvard professor holding a chaired position as “very, very, very rare.” West left Harvard for Union Theological Seminary in New York City.
Observers point to these experiences as evidence that tenure racism exists, and that colleges can substantially improve on-campus diversity and equity. Application and interpretation of the rules can apply unequally when minority faculty members pursue academic tenure. Observers also criticize the secrecy that often surrounds the tenure consideration process. Universities typically consider tenure appointments personnel matters, which allows schools and applicants to keep much of the process confidential as part of their tenure rights.
Legal Challenge and Outlook
Hannah-Jones says she may file a lawsuit in response to the university’s decision. “The right to free expression is a cornerstone of our democracy, and its protection is particularly critical for Black Americans and other marginalized groups who have a long history of battling infringement of this right,” Hannah-Jones said in a statement published on the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund website.
“As a Black woman who has built a nearly two-decades-long career in journalism,” she continued, “I believe Americans who research, study, and publish works that expose uncomfortable truths about the past and present manifestations of racism in our society should be able to follow these pursuits without risk to their civil and constitutional rights.”
Hannah-Jones concluded her statement by saying, in part, that she feels “obligated to fight back against a wave of anti-democratic suppression that seeks to prohibit the free exchange of ideas, silence Black voices, and chill free speech.”
Hannah-Jones could have a First Amendment case, according to Nareissa Smith, an attorney and former law professor, who points to elements that might lead a court to rule in Hannah-Jones’ favor. First, there’s precedent in academic free speech cases from the 1950s. The Supreme Court sided with the professors.
Second, Smith says that while not everyone agrees with Hannah-Jones’ work, it is thoroughly fact-based. For this reason, “it would be odd for a court to side against a professor who has done nothing more than tell the truth.” Finally, Smith says the Supreme Court views academic freedom as something of value for everyone, regardless of their connection to higher education.
Predictions that the controversy would affect UNC-Chapel Hill’s ability to recruit faculty came true. Lisa Jones, an associate professor at the University of Maryland School of Pharmacy, withdrew from consideration for a position at UNC-Chapel Hill. The school had worked for two years to recruit the Maryland professor. Jones said she could not “see myself accepting a position at a university where this decision stands.”
UNC-Chapel Hill’s Faculty Executive Committee urged the board of trustees in a May 24 statement “to explain to the fullest extent possible, without violating the law, the reasons for its decision.” Failure to do so, the statement continued, creates “a breach of trust in a process that is essential to our standing as a leading public research university.”
The school’s tenure committee resubmitted Hannah-Jones’ name for tenure consideration to the board of trustees. A few days later, Hannah-Jones and her legal team gave the school a June 4 deadline to reverse its decision. If the board of trustees did not act, she planned to proceed with a federal lawsuit. At the time of this story’s publication, the board of trustees had not reconsidered the issue. The group’s next scheduled meeting is July 14-15.
July 2021 Update
On June 30, after weeks of controversy, the UNC board voted 9-4 to OK Hannah-Jones’ tenure application. But a few days later, on July 6, the journalist announced in a national TV interview that she decided not to accept the tenured position at UNC.
Hannah-Jones told CBS News that “it’s pretty clear that my tenure was not taken up because of political opposition because of discriminatory views against my viewpoint and I believe my race and my gender,” she said.
Instead, Hannah-Jones will join the faculty with tenure at Howard University’s Cathy Hughes School of Communications. She will serve as the first ever Knight Chair in Race and Journalism at the historically Black college in Washington, D.C.
In a statement signed by dozens of UNC Hussman School of Media and Journalism faculty members, the group expressed frustration and regret over how the university treated Hannah-Jones. They apologized and said the journalism school “is already working toward a full and transparent accounting of what transpired” during Hannah-Jones’ hire.
While disappointed that Hannah-Jones won’t join UNC, “we are not surprised,” the faculty wrote. “The appalling treatment of one of our nation’s most decorated journalists by her own alma mater was humiliating, inappropriate, and unjust. We will be frank: It was racist.”
In an interview with journalism nonprofit Poynter, Walter Hussman Jr., the UNC school’s namesake and largest donor, denied race influenced the concerns he raised about Hannah-Jones.
“The narrative became ‘rich old white guy trying to deny an opportunity to a talented young Black journalist,'” Hussman told Poynter. He said his concerns about her potential faculty appointment centered on her scholarship surrounding The 1619 Project and not the content of her work.
Journalist and author Ta-Nehisi Coates, a Howard alumnus, will also join the university faculty. Coates will join the school’s college of arts and sciences. In a recent announcement, Howard President Dr. Wayne A.I. Frederick lauded the talent, influence, and prestige that Hannah-Jones and Coates will add to the university.
“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,” Frederick said. “Not only must our newsrooms reflect the communities where they are reporting, but we need to infuse the profession with diverse talent. We are thrilled that they will bring their insights and research to what is already a world-class, highly accomplished team of professors.”
Nate Delesline III
Nate Delesline III is a Virginia-based writer covering higher education. He has more than a decade of experience as a newspaper journalist covering public safety, local government, business, transportation, and K-12 and higher education.
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