Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones told CBS This Morning she has turned down a tenured faculty position at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and has instead accepted a tenured position at Howard University, the historically Black university in Washington, D.C. The decision by the acclaimed New York Times writer concludes an embarrassing and troubling episode at UNC where Hannah-Jones was offered the position at UNC’s journalism school without tenure, despite it being customary that appointees to the Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism are tenured. The faculty board had recommended Hannah-Jones for tenure and each of the previous white appointees had gotten tenure along with the position, but UNC’s board of trustees failed to offer Hannah-Jones a tenure-protected position. Facing student protests and widespread recriminations for what appeared be political meddling, UNC, last week, reversed course, offering Hannah-Jones tenure along with the five-year position. On Tuesday, however, Hannah-Jones declined, saying after all of the resistance, “it’s just not something that I want anymore.”
Hannah-Jones is an alumna of the UNC journalism school, receiving her master’s degree there; a MacArthur fellow, the so-called genius grant; and the creator of the New York Times’ 1619 Project about the lasting impacts of slavery. Of all Hannah-Jones’s writing and work on race, the 1619 Project rankled conservative politicians the most for its depiction of the history of the slave trade and its persistent and insidious influence on America. The board of trustees, which is under political control in North Carolina and appointed by the Republican-led state Legislature, initially withheld tenure saying there were “questions” that needed to be answered about Hannah-Jones candidacy. The reaction was immediate: The decision was decried as an unjust and racist restriction on the academic freedom of a leading American voice on race and journalism. The board ultimately voted 9-to-4 to offer Hannah-Jones tenure, but the damage had already been done.
Hannah-Jones said she will instead take up a newly created position at Howard as the Knight Chair in Race and Journalism; she will also found a new Center for Journalism and Democracy. She said she will use those positions to train and encourage Black students to “accurately and urgently [cover] the challenges of our democracy with a clarity, skepticism, rigor and historical dexterity that is too often missing from today’s journalism.” Writer Ta-Nehisi Coates will also join the Howard faculty as a writer-in-residence. The new positions are supported by nearly $20 million in grants to Howard from the Knight Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Ford Foundation, and an anonymous donor.