By Allison Markman
New York City, New York
Nikole Hannah-Jones, a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist for her work on The 1619 Project, was denied tenure at the University of North Carolina in what many believe was a political decision.
The 1619 Project is an ongoing initiative aimed at reframing American history to acknowledge the roots and consequences of slavery in the country’s origin story. The project has been a major target by conservatives who call the long-form journalism, “propaganda.” The project received a lot of backlash from many Republicans, most notably from President Donald Trump, who in reaction to the project created a 1776 commission to enforce a more patriotic education and a pro-American curriculum.
Hannah-Jones, an alum of the university, was appointed to the Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism at UNC's Hussman School of Journalism and Media. Hannah-Jones was seen as a controversial hire by many conservatives, a factor that may have led to UNC’s denial of her tenure.
The board’s response to the criticisms of Hannah-Jones being denied tenure was that the position is a lifetime appointment and should not be taken lightly. “It’s not unusual for a member 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,” Chairman of the Board of Trustees for The Chapel Hill campus Richard Stephens said. Though Hannah-Jones might not come from an academic background, she is a staff-writer at The New York Times, a MacArthur Fellowship recipient and a Pulitzer Prize winner.
In response to the decision, 40 faculty members from the journalism school signed a letter calling for the decision to be reversed. Hannah-Jones had support from both the journalism school's dean and faculty members. Rather than tenure, Hannah-Jones received a five-year contract with the university with an option to be reviewed for tenure within the five years.
“The failure to offer Hannah-Jones tenure with her appointment as a Knight chair unfairly moves the goalposts and violates long-standing norms and established processes relating to tenure and promotion at UNC Chapel Hill,” professors at UNC said. “The two immediately preceding Knight Chairs in our school received tenure upon appointment.”
Fellow journalists have expressed their support for Hannah-Jones. Columbia Journalism School professor and staff writer at the New Yorker Jelani Cobb said that the decision was obscene. He said that tenure exists to protect professors from politicized decision making and pointed out her credentials for the position.
The decision is having a large impact on the community of UNC. Other departments at the university are finding it difficult to recruit new faculty members. Lisa Jones, a prominent Black chemist and researcher in structural proteomics, withdrew her candidacy to teach at the school, citing the decision to deny Hannah-Jones tenure.
The Knight Foundation said they would not attempt to pressure the tenure decisions at the school but have urged the school to reconsider their decision.