The fallout continues at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill after the university’s board of trustees reversed its position on tenure for 1619 Project founder Nikole Hannah-Jones this year. Instead, the university’s public affairs committee announced it would need more time to review her case for tenure and would delay tenure by five years.
Faculty leaders condemned the decision and demanded that the board hold a vote to determine whether Hannah-Jones should have tenure or not. The university’s faculty council executive committee said that delaying the decision (and vote) further would create doubt about the university’s processes and the integrity of the board of trustees. Committee member Eric Muller, a jurisprudence and ethics professor, said, “I’m not sure any of us has seen the faculty more galvanized with emotion.” He added, “I see no reason to hide the fact that we are outraged.”
Hannah-Jones’s “1619 Project” was featured by The New York Times and was riddled with historical inaccuracies in the name of black nationalism. It has since been integrated into civics curriculum and approved by many school districts nationwide, despite many of its claims being debunked by conservative scholars. The project’s main contention is that the founding of the United States of America began with the first slaves brought to the American colonies in 1619 and not the Declaration of Independence in 1776.
The New York Times scrubbed parts of the project’s controversial language without issuing an editor’s note or explanation. It removed a reference to the project’s fight to expose the country’s “true founding” in an attempt to neutralize the controversial language. The Times also reworded an article that falsely claimed that “some” American colonists fought the British crown in order to preserve slavery. The project also misconstrued the Constitution’s phrasing and claimed that it was written to preserve slavery, instead of recognizing that concepts enshrined in the Constitution would eventually pave the way for the end of slavery. It ignored the arguments of several key figures in the Constitutional Convention against slavery, such as Gouverneur Morris’s statement that slavery is “a nefarious institution.”
Despite her project’s many flaws and inaccuracies, UNC faculty members were in an uproar and defended Hannah-Jones’s work. They cited her reception of the Pulitzer Prize for her project and being a “genius” grantee of the MacArthur Foundation. For the record, the MacArthur Foundation typically funds left-wing causes and therefore it is no surprise that the UNC faculty would be fine with Hannah-Jones’s left-wing credentials. She had strong support for tenure from faculty, her dean, and some in the administration. Of course, anonymous sources told Inside Higher Ed that Hannah-Jones was “being held to a different standard than her white would-be peers” and “politics” ultimately determined the decision.
One of her biggest supporters, dean of Hussman School of Journalism and Media Susan King, wrote that Hannah-Jones “deserves tenure.”
It is important to note that the university’s board of trustees has final say in who receives tenure and who does not, but Hannah-Jones’s supporters claimed that the board typically approves tenure for candidates who have strong support from faculty and administration. A confusing element in the story is that the board of trustees alleged that university provost Bob Blouin did not recommend her for tenure, but if that were true, Hannah-Jones’s case would not have made it to the board of trustees for a vote.
The board of trustees’ chair, Richard Stevens, apparently expressed the view that Hannah-Jones’s lack of an academic background affected her case, though supporters said that it did not stop other professors from getting tenure when they had non-academic backgrounds.
The tenure delay will not affect Hannah-Jones’s onboarding at UNC this July as the Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism, but the decision does throw her future into doubt. The faculty expressed fear that she will take another job offer if her situation is not cleared up soon. The faculty members urged the board of trustees to “take up the matter of tenure for Nikole Hannah-Jones immediately.”
How did Hannah-Jones respond?
On Twitter, she said, “I have been overwhelmed by all the support you all have shown me. It has truly fortified my spirit and my resolve. You all know that I will be OK. But this fight is bigger than me, and I will try my best not to let you down.”