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The Real Reason UNC–Chapel Hill Is Withholding Tenure From Nikole Hannah-Jones

She’s the most recent victim of the right wing’s war on universities.

Nikole Hannah-Jones at the Root 100 gala in New York City on Nov. 21, 2019.
Arturo Holmes/Getty Images

Earlier this year, UNC–Chapel Hill’s Hussman School of Journalism and Media announced that it had extended acclaimed journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones a position as its Knight chair in race and investigative journalism. Like other (though not all) Knight chairs at journalism schools around the country, this was to be a tenured position. On Wednesday, the website NC Policy Watch reported that the yearslong conservative war against Hannah-Jones—predicated chiefly on her leadership of the New York Times’ controversial 1619 Project—seemed to have succeeded in robbing her of tenure, along with all the job stability and protections for academic freedom that status entails.

This was a job with “Nikole Hannah-Jones”—2003 alum of the Hussman School and recent winner of both the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for commentary and a MacArthur “Genius Grant”—written all over it. But Policy Watch reported that, as the result of an apparent compromise between the university’s chancellor (who supported her appointment) and the board of trustees, Hannah-Jones will start in July but not with tenure. She’s been offered, instead, a five-year term, with a tenure review to take place at the end of that time. To other professors looking on, this was clearly chilling. “That’s literally saying they’ll tenure her if she behaves appropriately at UNC, rather than tenure her based upon her record as reviewed by peers, colleagues, academic supervisors, etc.,” noted journalism professor Michael Socolow on Twitter.

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This isn’t just a slight against Hannah-Jones personally—though that it most certainly is. The decision is a pointed demonstration of the UNC–Chapel Hill board of trustees’ control over the university’s faculty. The board has final say over who gets tenure, but usually rubber-stamps faculty decisions. In this case, the committee appointed to the task—according to Susan King, dean of the journalism school, in comments to Policy Watch—reviewed Hannah-Jones’ package of tenure materials enthusiastically and supported the appointment fully. At UNC–Chapel Hill, previous Knight chairs have been appointed with tenure, and by all accounts, faculty expected this one to be no exception. “It’s disappointing, it’s not what we wanted, and I am afraid it will have a chilling effect,” King said. Hussman School faculty, Hannah-Jones’ future colleagues, issued an outraged statement on Wednesday in which they called themselves “stunned” and described the failure to offer Hannah-Jones tenure as an act of “unfairly mov[ing] the goalposts.”

An anonymous trustee told Policy Watch that they could sum up the rationale behind the decision in one word: “Politics.” The word points to a much larger fight going on in the state around public higher education. Policy Watch’s previous reporting on the Hannah-Jones situation found that since her appointment was announced in April of this year, officials at the university had been getting pressure from conservative groups to rescind it. Calling Hannah-Jones “inflammatory” and a “firebrand activist,” an unsigned editorial from one such group declared: “UNC has once again reared its liberal head.”

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As Policy Watch pointed out, some of these conservative groups had financial ties to powerful GOP activists who have, in recent years, been appointed by the state legislature to the board of governors. The board of governors, the group that oversees the state’s public universities, was, to be clear, not the organization that forced the decision to amend the terms of Hannah-Jones’ position; that was the board of trustees at UNC–Chapel Hill. But the whole situation may have been the indirect result of a forbidding climate created by the board of governors, which seems to be finding new ways to exert control over what happens on individual campuses.

The board has been, for the past decade, on a right-wing mission. A trio of reporters at the Chronicle of Higher Education opened a September 2020 investigative piece about the rightward turn in public-college governance with the story of North Carolina. In 2010, Republicans took both chambers of North Carolina’s General Assembly. Among other GOP agenda items, the legislators committed themselves to electing new members of the board of governors, thereby creating a governing board for the state’s university system that would lean far-right Republican. Over the past decade, the reporters wrote, even “moderate board members and administrators, themselves loyal Republicans” were purged or quit. New members, the three found through public-records requests, displayed standard-issue right-wing animus toward the supposed liberalism of higher education, writing emails to one another that described students as “snowflakes,” and cheering one another on in “facing the dragon” when dealing with left-leaning faculty members.

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The state-level board’s rightward turn has had consequences at Chapel Hill, even as the student body has increasingly pushed for racial equity and reckoning. 2015 saw the board-provoked shuttering of the university’s Center on Poverty, Work, and Opportunity, which was led by Gene Nichol, a law professor and outspoken critic of Republican politicians. (He was the “dragon” in question.) Also in 2015, the university’s board of trustees, when petitioned by students to rename the campus’s Saunders Hall (which once honored alumnus and KKK leader William L. Saunders), agreed—but with the application of conditions that amounted to a clumsy compromise. They would rename the building “Carolina Hall,” not “Hurston Hall,” after Zora Neale Hurston, as students had wanted. They also put a 16-year moratorium on any further renaming decisions, a decree that saved the board from any further such fights, which might bring scrutiny from the board of governors. Finally, in 2020, a judge overturned the bizarre decision the board of governors made, after secret negotiations, to give the statue known as “Silent Sam,” toppled by students and activists in 2018, to the Sons of Confederate Veterans group, along with a $2.5 million trust earmarked to support the statue’s maintenance. Hannah-Jones’ tenure is, it seems, the latest casualty of this broader war.

The UNC–Chapel Hill board of trustees will hold a meeting on Thursday where, Policy Watch reports, the status of Hannah-Jones’ position may be a topic of discussion. Will the trustees change their minds on the decision, after seeing the outrage the Policy Watch reporting has inspired? As Alberto Cairo, a fellow Knight chair appointed at the University of Miami, described the decision on Twitter, this is “just the latest skirmish” in a “reactionary, authoritarian, anti-intellectual uprising … at war with academia.” “I’m pulling my contributions,” tweeted Cynthia Greenlee, a historian and graduate of the Hussman School. “Way to treat an alum.”


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