Tucker Higgins, CNBC
Journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones said Tuesday she had declined a tenure offer from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and will join the faculty at Howard University, a historically Black institution, following weeks of controversy.
Hannah-Jones, who won a 2020 Pulitzer Prize for her commentary in The New York Times’ “The 1619 Project,” made the announcement during an interview on “CBS This Morning” with host Gayle King.
“I will not be teaching on the faculty of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. It’s a very difficult decision, not a decision I wanted to make,” Hannah-Jones said.
Hannah-Jones will be a tenured member of the faculty of the Cathy Hughes School of Communications as the Knight Chair in Race and Journalism. She will also found a new center for journalism and democracy, according to a statement from Howard.
The announcement comes less than a week after UNC’s board of trustees voted 9-4 to offer Hannah-Jones tenure for a position as Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism at the university’s Hussman School of Journalism.
UNC announced in April that Hannah-Jones would join the university, where she earned her master’s degree in 2003. At the time, Hannah-Jones said the move was “a full-circle moment for me as I return to the place that launched my career to help launch the careers of other aspiring journalists.”
However, the following month, UNC’s board said that Hannah-Jones’ tenure application was halted, citing her limited academic experience.
Richard Stevens, the chairman of the board of trustees, told The Associated Press at the time that it was “not unusual for a member of the board … to have questions for clarification about background, particularly candidates that don’t come from a traditional academic-type background.”
The board’s decision ignited a firestorm, with critics alleging that the school was bowing to conservative pressure. The 1619 Project has been the subject of criticism on the right over the way it depicts the influence of slavery on American history.
Hannah-Jones suggested to King that race may have played a role in her tenure denial.
“This was a position that, since the 1980s, came with tenure,” Hannah-Jones said. “Every other chair before me, who also happened to be white, received that position with tenure.”
Susan King, the dean of UNC’s journalism school, said in a statement that she was “disappointed” Hannah-Jones would not be joining the university but acknowledged that it had been a “long six months for her and for our UNC students.”
“We wish her nothing but deep success and the hope that UNC can learn from this long tenure drama about how we must change as a community of scholars in order to grow as a campus that lives by its stated values of being a diverse and welcoming place for all,” she said.
Hannah-Jones said the fight over tenure soured her on the job at UNC, which she had once been enthusiastic about. The fact that the university ultimately voted to give her tenure was not enough, she said.
“To be denied it, and to only have that vote occur at the last possible day at the last possible moment, after threat of legal action, after weeks of protest, after it became a national scandal – it’s just not something that I want anymore,” she said.
In a lengthy statement released by Hannah-Jones’ lawyers, she said the “the university has, begrudgingly, done the absolute minimum.”
In that statement, Hannah-Jones called on the school to take a number of steps, including apologizing to students who protested for her to receive tenure, releasing more information about why she was denied tenure, and changing the role that the board of trustees has in faculty governance.
Hannah-Jones will begin her position this summer, according to Howard. The university said that she will found the Center for Journalism and Democracy. The center, it said, “will focus on training and supporting aspiring journalists in acquiring the investigative skills and historical and analytical expertise needed to cover the crisis our democracy is facing.”
“In the storied tradition of the Black press, the Center for Journalism and Democracy will help produce journalists capable of accurately and urgently covering the challenges of our democracy with a clarity, skepticism, rigor and historical dexterity that is too often missing from today’s journalism,” Hannah-Jones said in a statement provided by Howard.
Howard also announced Tuesday that writer Ta-Nehisi Coates, an influential Black thinker who gained attention for promoting reparations for the descendants of slaves, will join its faculty.
Three foundations and an anonymous donor contributed nearly $20 million to support Hannah-Jones’ position and the new center for journalism and democracy, Howard said. Those foundations are the Knight Foundation, The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and The Ford Foundation.
The announcement Tuesday comes days after Howard University’s Phylicia Rashad, dean of the school’s arts college, apologized for a comment she made on Twitter following Bill Cosby’s release from prison after his sex crime conviction was overturned. Rashad co-starred with the disgraced comedian on “The Cosby Show” and celebrated his release. Howard criticized the tweet, saying it “lacked sensitivity towards survivors of sexual assault.