Timeline: How UNC lost Nikole Hannah-Jones after all

Timeline: How UNC lost Nikole Hannah-Jones after all

Nikole Hannah-Jones at the premeire of PBS's "Neutral Ground" in June. Photo: Monica Schipper/Getty Images for Tribeca Festival

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In the end, Nikole Hannah-Jones had two offers for tenured professor positions — one at a university that coveted her and her work, the other at a university whose board went back and forth on her worth.

She chose the one that didn’t waver. On Tuesday, Hannah-Jones said that she’ll become Howard University’s new Knight Chair in Race and Journalism, turning down a similar offer from UNC-Chapel Hill.

  • Howard added to the big-splash news morning by announcing that she’ll be joined by acclaimed author Ta-Nehisi Coates.
  • Hannah-Jones won a Pulitzer for her work on the 1619 Project; Coates won the 2015 National Book Award for “Between the World and Me.”

Their positions at Howard will be supported by $20 million from four donors — the Knight Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Ford Foundation, and an anonymous donor.

What’s happening: So ends the months-long saga with UNC’s board of trustees over tenure. Hannah-Jones did it on her own terms in a series of announcements, first on CBS “This Morning,” and then with a 4,000-word statement through the NAACP’s Legal Defense and Education Fund.

  • As she went on television, Hannah-Jones posted a link to Lauryn Hill’s “Lost Ones,” which repeats the lyric, “You might win some but you just lost one.”

Why it matters: Hannah-Jones’s decision could ripple through academia. Howard now celebrates becoming the teaching home of two of today’s most decorated Black writers, while UNC’s leadership waits to see how the ordeal will affect its ability to recruit teachers, staff and students. Already several are leaving.

  • Sibby Anderson-Thompkins, UNC’s interim chief diversity officer, is moving to a Tennessee university in August. She told The Chronicle of Higher Education recently that, “I did not feel comfortable continuing to recruit for UNC.”
  • In June, Lisa Jones, a renowned chemistry professor UNC hoped to recruit away from a Maryland university, said she wouldn’t come to Chapel Hill because of the Hannah-Jones situation.
  • Also in June, UNC’s student body president Lamar Richards published an open letter that encouraged historically marginalized students to “look elsewhere” for higher education.

    Charlotte connections: A 2015 count showed nearly 20,000 UNC-Chapel Hill alums living in Mecklenburg County.

    • One of the law firms representing Hannah-Jones is Ferguson, Chambers & Sumter, the Charlotte-based firm founded in the 1960s by the late civil rights legend Julius Chambers, who died in 2013, and James Ferguson, who still practices.

    The big picture: In the ongoing national debates over race and journalism and American history, Tuesday’s news sends a message that the top HBCU in America is ready to teach the links between slavery and today’s racial divides, and that it can raise money quickly to build the program.

    • “This is a moment of inflection on the impact of race and racism in the United States and around the world,” said John Palfrey, President of the MacArthur Foundation, which put up $5 million for the new positions. “Hannah-Jones’ twin passions of investing in the next generation of Black journalists and her tireless quest for the U.S. to confront and repair the enduring legacy of slavery through the 1619 Project will now have a home at Howard University.”

    Meanwhile UNC, which was built by enslaved people and accepted its first Black student in 1951, didn’t grant Hannah-Jones tenure until it faced pressure from her supporters nationwide, and in the end couldn’t keep her. 

    Here’s a timeline of events, many of which were outlined in Hannah-Jones’s statement:

    2001-2003: Hannah-Jones earned a master’s from UNC’s journalism school. “I cried from joy,” she writes of learning she was accepted. “I could not believe how lucky I was to get the chance to learn journalism at a place I had so long revered.”

    Around 2020: Dean Susan King asked Hannah-Jones to consider teaching at the university. Last year Hannah-Jones went through a months-long tenure application process, submitting several statements, teaching a class while being observed by faculty, and going through a portfolio review.

    Spring 2021: In a movement related to Hannah-Jones’s work, state legislatures around the country proposed legislation to ban critical race theory, which examines structural racism and whether it’s baked into the formation of the U.S. and today’s inequities.

    • CRT — which is mainly taught on the college level, despite its opponents focusing on K-12 classrooms — has become a most furiously debated culture war, and many opponents believe Hannah-Jones’s Pulitzer-winning 1619 Project is synonymous with it.

    April 26: UNC’s Hussman School of Journalism announced Hannah-Jones as the Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism, a position that has come with tenure for every Knight Chair who preceded her, back to the 1980s.

    May 19: N.C. Policy Watch broke the big news that Hannah-Jones wouldn’t receive tenure after conservative trustees raised concerns about her hiring. Instead, she would receive a five-year contract to start July 1.

    May-July: Protests mounted from teachers, alums and students.

    • The chemist, Jones, who is Black, turned down UNC in an open letter: “It does not seem in line with a school that says it is interested in diversity,” she wrote of the Hannah-Jones situation.
    • The student body president, Richards, also published his open letter that said at UNC “students of color must speak twice as loud just to be heard at the same volume.”

      May 30: The Assembly published a blockbuster with emails from mega-donor Walter Hussman to UNC leadership saying, among other things, “I worry about the controversy of tying the UNC journalism school to the 1619 project.” Hussman gave $25 million to the school in 2019.

      June 30: The trustees ultimately voted 9-4 to approve Hannah-Jones’ tenure, while protesters filled a meeting.

      July 6: Hannah-Jones appeared on CBS “This Morning” and said she’s turning down the UNC offer and going to Howard.

      • Minutes later, Howard announced that Coates will join her.
      • Minutes after that, the the NAACP Legal Defense Fund published her full statement.

      Flashback: For as tense as this has been, it’s not unusual for North Carolina’s flagship public university to be the setting for debates and civil rights protests.

      • In 1963, for instance, the General Assembly passed “The Speaker Ban” law, an act that regulated visiting speakers at state colleges and universities. The legislators then believed the university had become too liberal in its allowing people with ties to communism on campus.
      • Legendary UNC System President William “Bill” Friday saw the ban as an attack on free speech and academic freedom, though. Friday supported the students who pushed against it and got it overturned.
      • Friday, who died in 2012, has come up on occasion during the Hannah-Jones debate, mostly from those who say he’d be upset with how it’s played out.

      What UNC faculty said: “The appalling treatment of one of our nation’s most-decorated journalists by her own alma mater was humiliating, inappropriate, and unjust,” UNC’s Hussman faculty wrote in a joint statement. “We will be frank: It was racist.”

      What Hussman, the donor who raised concerns about her hire, said: ““I don’t have any judgment about her (personally) — I’ve never met her,” Hussman told Poynter Tuesday. “… I feel certain I did what I should appropriately have done. I didn’t lobby against her appointment.”

      What Hannah-Jones said: “This is not my fight. I fought the battle I wanted to fight,” she said on CBS “This Morning,” as Axios reported Tuesday. “Which is I deserve to be treated equally and have a vote on my tenure. I won that battle. It’s not my job to heal the University of North Carolina. That’s the job of the people in power who created the situation.”

      The bottom line: Hannah-Jones made it clear where she’s going, and Howard made it clear what and who it wants to invest in. Hannah-Jones made it clear she wanted to work at a university where leadership fully supported her.

      • Less clear is how this all hangs over UNC, and for how long.

      Go deeper with the full CBS “This Morning” interview, and Hannah-Jones’s full statement.

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