'A Chilling Effect': 1619 Project Creator Denied Tenure at UNC

Insiders say politics was behind unusual decision on Nikole Hannah-Jones
By Rob Quinn,  Newser Staff
Posted May 20, 2021 8:24 AM CDT
Academics Cry Foul as NYT Journalist Denied Tenure
In this May 21, 2016 photo, Nikole Hannah-Jones attends the 75th Annual Peabody Awards Ceremony at Cipriani Wall Street in New York.   (Photo by Evan Agostini/Invision/AP, File)

In what academics say is a highly unusual and "disappointing" move, New York Times journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones, creator of the 1619 Project, will not be offered a tenured position at her alma mater, the University of North Carolina. She will instead be offered a five-year contract at the UNC-Chapel Hill’s Hussman School of Journalism and Media, where she has been appointed to the Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism, the News & Observer reports. The two previous Knight Chairs were granted tenure on appointment, and faculty members believe the Board of Trustees' decision is the result of conservative backlash. More:

  • The background. The 1619 Project, which reframes American history with slavery and its legacy at the center, has been strongly criticized by conservatives and the hiring of Hannah-Jones caused an outcry, the New York Times reports. North Carolina's GOP-controlled legislature appoints the university system's Board of Governors.

  • "This is a very political thing." A board member who asked not to be identified tells NC Policy Watch that the decision to hire Hannah-Jones without tenure was a "work-around," since fixed-term positions do not require board approval. "This is a very political thing,” the trustee says. "The university and the board of trustees and the Board of Governors and the legislature have all been getting pressure since this thing was first announced last month. There have been people writing letters and making calls, for and against. But I will leave it to you which is carrying more weight."
  • Faculty members are irate. Dozens of faculty members criticized the move and called for an explanation, reports the Washington Post. "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," they wrote in a post on Medium.
  • "A chilling effect." "It’s disappointing, it’s not what we wanted and I am afraid it will have a chilling effect," says Susan King, dean of UNC Hussman, per Policy Watch. She notes that UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz stood up for Hannah-Jones before the board and she's not sure why tenure was not approved.
  • Governors "on a right-wing mission." According to Slate, the system's Board of Governors has been "on a right-wing mission" for a decade, with even moderate Republicans forced out. Internal emails show that members described students as "snowflakes" and described clashes with left-leaning faculty members as "facing the dragon."
  • Knight Foundation speaks out. The president of the Knight Foundation, which funds the position, said that while the foundation has no role in appointments, "it is clear to us that Hannah-Jones is eminently qualified for the appointment." "We would urge the trustees of the University of North Carolina to reconsider their decision within the time frame of our agreement," Alberto Ibarguen said in a statement, per the Times.
(Read more University of North Carolina stories.)

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