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UNC board grants tenure to Nikole Hannah-Jones amid outcry from Black faculty and students

<i>James Estrin/The New York Times/Redux Pictures</i><br/>Nikole Hannah-Jones during an interview after winning a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship
James Estrin/The New York Times/
James Estrin/The New York Times/Redux Pictures
Nikole Hannah-Jones during an interview after winning a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship

By Nicquel Terry Ellis, CNN

The board of trustees at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill voted Wednesday to grant tenure to award-winning journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones after facing backlash from Black students and faculty who said the board’s initial failure to do so reflected a history of systemic racism at the school.

The board’s 9-4 vote came after it met in a closed session for nearly three hours. When the board moved to a closed session, video surfaced on social media of law enforcement forcefully removing protesters from the meeting room.

Following the vote, board chair Richard Stevens said the board had “endured false claims” and was “called the most unpleasant names” in recent weeks.

“There have been those who have wrongly questioned this university’s commitment to academic freedom and open scholarly inquiry,” Stevens said. “We remain committed to being a light shining brightly on the hill. We embrace and endorse academic freedom, open and rigorous debate and scholarly inquiry, constructive disagreement.”

The tenure approval came just one day before Hannah-Jones was set to officially join the Hussman School of Journalism and Media as the Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism. Last month it was revealed that her appointment didn’t come with tenure, a break with tradition for that position. Hannah-Jones’ legal team had said she would not take the position if it doesn’t include tenure.

University officials posted a notice of Wednesday’s special meeting online, but a university spokeswoman declined to comment on plans for a tenure vote when reached by CNN.

Trish Harris, vice chair of the Carolina Black Caucus and recruitment director at the UNC School of Education, confirmed that the tenure vote for Jones would take place at the meeting. The Carolina Black Caucus is a campus group that advocates for Black faculty and staff at UNC.

The board’s refusal to give Hannah-Jones’ tenure has fueled outcry from UNC’s Black community with more than 100 students rallying last week on campus to demand that the board reconsider tenure for Hannah-Jones. At least three Black faculty members have reportedly announced their resignations amid the controversy including one who said the tenure issue with Hannah-Jones was a key reason for her upcoming departure. CNN was unable to confirm why the other two resigned.

In early June, 42 faculty members from the Hussman School of Journalism and Media penned a letter condemning the board for not granting Hannah-Jones tenure calling it “blatant disregard for time-honored tenure procedures and for the university and Board of Trustees’ endorsed values of diversity, equity and inclusion.”

UNC student body president and trustee Lamar Richards requested that the board schedule a special meeting to vote on the tenure application for Hannah-Jones.

In Richards’ letter to the board dated June 23, he said the meeting was necessary “for the sake of our university’s future, not as the sole corrective measure for inclusion efforts on campus but as the first step to ignite this critical phase of bolstering inclusion for Carolina.”

‘A slap in the face’

Black faculty members, students and alumni say the controversy is just the latest example of the bias and discrimination that Black people have faced at UNC.

Dawna Jones, chair of the Carolina Black Caucus and assistant dean of students at UNC, said Black faculty members have complained for years about being overlooked for promotions, not receiving professional development, and being overworked and expected to take on added responsibilities such as serving as diversity chairs of search committees and mentoring students.

The turmoil over Hannah-Jones not receiving tenure felt like another “slap in the face” for many faculty members, Jones said.

“I think for us on campus it feels like just another trigger of the things that go on behind in the scenes in the rooms that Black leaders are in,” Jones said. “We feel as though we are being treated much differently than our (White) counterparts.”

UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Kevin M. Guskiewicz released a statement saying he was concerned about the complaints from Black faculty.

“It has always been my goal to build a community where everyone truly knows they belong and are valued for their own unique perspectives and experiences,” Guskiewicz said. “I am deeply concerned that some members of the Carolina Black community do not feel they can thrive in this environment.”

Sibby Anderson-Thompkins, who serves as special adviser to the provost, chancellor for equity and inclusion and interim chief diversity officer at UNC, said the board’s failure to give Hannah-Jones tenure was the tipping point for her decision to resign. She has accepted a position as vice provost for diversity, equity, and inclusion at Sewanee, The University of the South.

Anderson-Thompkins said the board’s actions felt counterproductive to her work on diversity and inclusion initiatives at UNC as well as her advocacy for transparency in leadership. The board, she said, was not transparent in their tenure discussions for Hannah-Jones. Newly recruited, diverse faculty members have also been reaching out to her worried about the climate at the university, Anderson-Thompkins said.

“My worry is that we are not reckoning with our current decision-making and choices,” she said. “We are simply perpetuating our history but repeating many of the mistakes we have made in the past.”

Jones said there is value in having a Black woman as a full tenured faculty member at UNC because it’s rare on many college campuses. There is currently only one Black woman faculty member with tenure at the UNC School of Journalism and Media and that is Dr. Trevy McDonald who serves as associate professor and director of Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion.

“Having a Black woman of her stature at the University of North Carolina, it’s a no-brainer for us and it’s very confusing that we’re in this situation right now,” Jones said.

Students rally for journalist

Students at UNC have also expressed frustration with how Hannah-Jones is being treated.

At a UNC Black Student Movement rally on campus last week, Jaylen Harrell, a rising sophomore, told CNN’s affiliate WRAL that the controversy over Jones’ tenure was “shocking” and made him question how much UNC values its students of color.

“As minority students on campus, it’s important that our faculty and staff help represent us,” Harrell said. “We want our voices to be heard, not just through us, but through our faculty and staff as well.”

In addition to her master’s degree, which she earned at UNC’s journalism school, Hannah-Jones has racked up awards that include the MacArthur Foundation Fellowship (known as the Genius Grant) and the Pulitzer Prize for her landmark 1619 project.

This year she was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

McDonald said she feels confident the board will grant Hannah-Jones tenure.

“It will not be a unanimous vote, but she will have the majority needed,” McDonald said.

Correction: A previous version of this article misstated how many Black women faculty members have tenure at UNC. There is one tenured faculty member at the journalism school.

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CNN’s Melissa Alonso contributed to this report.

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