The Atlanta Voice
by Nicole Hemmer
May 25, 2021
“Politics.” That’s how one member of the board of trustees at the University of North Carolina summed up to NC Policy Watch the decision to deny tenure to Nikole Hannah-Jones, a New York Times reporter recently hired to fill the university’s prestigious Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism. After a rigorous yearlong review process, Hannah-Jones had been enthusiastically recommended for tenure by faculty and administrators, only to have it denied by the board in an unprecedented action.
The official reason the board gave for its decision was that Hannah-Jones was a “non-academic” — a statement that makes little sense since the chair to which she was appointed was designed to attract professional journalists rather than scholars. And there Hannah-Jones has more than enough credentials. In addition to her master’s degree, which she earned at UNC’s journalism school, Hannah-Jones has racked up just about every award imaginable in her nearly 20 years in journalism, including the MacArthur Foundation Fellowship (known as the Genius Grant) and the Pulitzer Prize. This year she was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. She was also the driving force behind The New York Times Magazine’s 1619 Project, which has put her directly in the crosshairs of the conservative movement.
That political opposition to her work, more so than any quibble with her qualifications, provides a better explanation for the decision to deny Hannah-Jones tenure. According to the board member, who was granted anonymity, since the university announced in April that it had hired Hannah-Jones, the board had experienced intense political pressure from those who have deemed her a threat for her work on racial inequity and racism in the United States. The University’s board, which according to the Raleigh News & Observer and an email from the dean of the journalism school to faculty, has authority to approve all tenured positions, but has not made a public statement about political pressure over Hannah-Jones’s appointment.