The loss of Nikole Hannah-Jones by the UNC-Chapel Hill Hussman School of Journalism and Media is one more black eye for an overly politicized UNC System that has been punching itself in the eye for a while now. It’s also a loss for the UNC journalism students who could have benefited from Hannah-Jones’ intellect, talent and broad experience.
It seemed at first like a dream acquisition. And it should have been. Hannah-Jones, a Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times reporter and MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant recipient — and, incidentally, an alumna of UNC’s journalism school — was hired in April as the school’s Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism. Her appointment would instantly increase the school’s prestige. Would-be investigative journalists from throughout the country would flock to North Carolina to learn from her.
But the school’s offer included a low ball: While previous Knight chairs had regularly received tenure upon being hired, Hannah-Jones was only offered a five-year contract.
UNC board trustees prevaricated, with one claiming that her tenure application was halted because she didn’t come from a “traditional academic-type background” and another saying that he had “questions” — which one would think might be asked before she was offered a job in the first place. It also turns out that the school’s major donor, Arkansas newspaper publisher Walter Hussman, was working behind the scenes to undermine her appointment. And some conservatives complained to trustees about Hannah-Jones’ involvement in The 1619 Project, a groundbreaking examination of slavery’s role in the founding of America, which she produced for The New York Times Magazine.
Supporters from all quarters rallied, including UNC staff and faculty. The foundation that endows Hannah-Jones’ position, the Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism, urged the school to offer her tenure.
The school’s trustees finally voted to do so, 9-4, last week.
But Hannah-Jones declined, accepting a tenured position at Howard University instead. There, she will create and lead the new Center for Journalism and Democracy, with a mission to increase diversity in journalism. She has already elicited $20 million in donations for the school.
After her announcement, a group of Hussman faculty members released a statement in which they attributed the trustees’ reluctance to grant Hannah-Jones tenure to racism. They noted the scarcity of Black women with tenure at UNC. “Hannah-Jones would have been the sole Black woman at the rank of full professor level in our school; at the university level, only 3.1% of tenured faculty are Black women.
“We regret that the top echelons of leadership at UNC-Chapel Hill failed to follow established processes, did not conduct themselves professionally and transparently, and created a crisis that shamed our institution, all because of Ms. Hannah-Jones’s honest accounting of America’s racial history. It is understandable why Ms. Hannah-Jones would take her brilliance elsewhere.”
Whether it is racism or incompetence, this isn’t the first time officials at UNC have taken what should be a simple administrative chore and created a politicized controversy; it has been a regular feature for several years now. Prominent, talented administrators like former UNC President Tom Ross; his replacement, Margaret Spellings; and UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Carol Folt have been dismissed or chased away by heavy-handed political maneuvers. In 2019, a group of UNC leaders cut a deal that placed the controversial “Silent Sam” Confederate statue and $2.5 million in the hands of the N.C. Sons of Confederate Veterans. The result of many of their decisions has been to diminish the reputation of the UNC System.
Also, under their leadership, African Americans at UNC have felt frustrated and shortchanged.
“Right now, the relationship between the University of North Carolina and its Black students, faculty and staff is broken,” Jaci Field, advocacy committee co-chair of the Carolina Black Caucus, a faculty group, said earlier this week.
Following the loss of Hannah-Jones, some of them have become energized and are demanding changes.
There’s no reason UNC trustees should have let Hannah-Jones slip through their fingers. But we fear we’ll continue to see these embarrassing losses until lawmakers and UNC leaders stop pushing political agendas and instead serve the best interests of the university and the state.