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‘Snowflakes indeed’: Duke professors respond to UNC’s decision to not tenure Nikole Hannah-Jones

<p>Nikole Hannah-Jones was denied a tenured position by the UNC Board of Trustees following conservative criticism.</p>

Nikole Hannah-Jones was denied a tenured position by the UNC Board of Trustees following conservative criticism.

Duke faculty are calling the University to step up after Nikole Hannah-Jones was not approved for tenure at University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill’s Hussman School of Journalism and Media.

Hannah-Jones—who received her master’s degree at Hussman in 2003—was invited in April to join Hussman as the Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism. Knight Chairs teaching at the UNC-Chapel Hill campus have been tenured since 1980. 

Hannah-Jones is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who also received a MacArthur Fellowship “Genius Grant.” She covers civil rights and racial injustice for The New York Times Magazine and was recently elected to the American Academy of Arts & Sciences. She is also the co-founder of the Ida B. Wells Society for Investigative Reporting, which is based at UNC.

She is popular for her conception of The 1619 Project, a longform piece in The New York Times Magazine that “challenges us to reframe U.S. history by marking the year when the first enslaved Africans arrived on Virginia soil as our nation's foundational date,” according to the Pulitzer Center. 

However, the UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees did not vote on granting Hannah-Jones tenure. She’ll instead be joining Hussman on July 1 in a fixed-term position with the potential to be approved for tenure after five years.

A UNC board member told North Carolina Policy Watch that the decision is a “very political thing.” They said the university and Boards of Trustees and Governors have been pressured by people writing letters and calling since Hannah-Jones’ appointment was first announced. 

Another unidentified board member “confirmed the political environment made granting Hannah-Jones tenure difficult, if not impossible,” according to Policy Watch.

Several Duke professors expressed their disappointment in the decision.

“Step up, @DukeU!,” tweeted Karla Holloway, James B. Duke distinguished professor emerita of English, along with a link to the Policy Watch article. Holloway was the former dean of humanities and social sciences faculty when the Sanford School of Public Policy was a part of Trinity College of Arts and Sciences, as well as the first African American woman to chair the Appointments, Promotion and Tenure Committee.

In an email to The Chronicle, Holloway wrote that she would be “hopeful and fully encouraging of any actions that would affirm [Hannah-Jones’] potential candidacy for full professor with tenure.”

Other professors also took to Twitter, such as Mark Anthony Neal, James B. Duke distinguished professor of African and African American studies. 

Neal told The Chronicle in an email that he is unaware of any conversations among Sanford faculty regarding Hannah-Jones but that it “does seem to present an opportunity for Sanford to bring someone into the fold of Hannah Jones’ stature.”

Donald Taylor, professor in the Sanford School of Public Policy, wrote in an email to The Chronicle that the decision “is an example of the Board of Trustees exercising a right that they have, but in doing so, they have harmed the University and threatened academic freedom.” He wrote that claiming Hannah-Jones is unqualified is “plainly absurd,” citing Hannah-Jones’ Pulitzer Prize, Peabody Award and MacArthur Fellowship grant.

“Conservatives don’t like some of what she has to say—snowflakes indeed, I guess,” Taylor wrote. He added that the “orchestrated nature of the criticism by political conservatives who control the Board of Governors and Trustees at UNC makes clear why she likely needs tenure to do her work.”

Policy Watch previously reported that conservative groups with direct ties to the UNC Board of Governors have been “highly critical” of Hannah-Jones’ work, saying that she has “questionable credentials” and that she is an “activist reporter—not a teacher.”

“It is no accident that they felt free to do this to a Black woman,” he wrote. “I am disgusted and embarrassed by the actions of the [Board of Governors] and Trustees at UNC.”

Hussman faculty signed a letter to UNC administration condemning the decision. Several other journalism faculty across the country, including Bill Adair, Knight professor of the practice of journalism and public policy, signed a statement of protest to the UNC Board of Trustees.

“The details of individual faculty hiring processes are personnel protected information. The University is proud to host a Knight Chair at our leading Hussman School of Journalism and Media and looks forward to welcoming Nikole Hannah-Jones to campus,” UNC spokesperson Joanne Peters Denny wrote in an email to The Chronicle.

Hannah-Jones’ team did not respond to a request for comment. 

UNC Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz told Policy Watch Wednesday afternoon that he would answer questions at a Thursday media event. Protesters attended the Board of Trustees meeting Thursday morning in support of Hannah-Jones.

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