Monday, May 31, 2021

UNC Chapel Hill first denies, then offers, tenure to "1619" journalist

Nikole Hannah-Jones, the Pulitzer Prize journalist and a creator of the NYT 1619 project, was denied tenure by the Board of Trustees of UNC Chapel Hill. Proposed and approved by faculty vote, the Board chose to offer her only a term contract with the opportunity to apply for tenure in 5 years. As a result of fallout from the decision, the Board of Trustees scheduled a meeting for June 30, 2021, to vote again and approved tenure for Hannah-Jones. Hannah-Jones first postponed her move to UNC and then finally rejected it, instead taking a position at Howard University. UNC missed both quality and reputational opportunity and Howard University is the better for it, having now combined Hannah-Jones appoint with that of fellow journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates.

The history behind Hannah-Jones offer, equivocation, and rejection is interesting to following. Students and professors from the beginning demanded justification for the Board's decision, but rationale and response to public demand were anything but clear. The UNC case demonstrates the problem of conservative control of UNC by the Board and university Boards in general. Faculty assert that the UNC case reflects the political orientation of Board members and inappropriate intrusion in decisions related to academic merit, which was confirmed by correspondence of Board member, Walter Hussman, Jr. Inside Higher Education wrote, "The New York Times Magazine's '1619 Project,' which re-examines the role of race in the nation's founding, and which has been criticized by detractors including former president Trump as being unpatriotic. Hannah-Jones is Black, and some also believe that she's being held to a different standard than her white would-be peers."

UNC faculty urged the Board to act immediately to reconsider their denial. Expediting consideration is particularly important in the face of losing other scholars who are sympathetic with, or concerned about, Hannah Jones' cause. Hannah Jones said in a Twitter post, "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." At a time when deeper analyses of previous narratives of U.S.A. history are underway, the UNC case is likely only the beginning.

Subsequent denial by the Board of Trustees of Eric Muller, another prominent journalist, to its UNC Press Board threw the university more deeply into controversy. Muller had previously criticized the Board of Trustees over considerations related to removal of "Silent Sam," a sculpture celebrating the Confederacy era.

Educators beyond UNC have raised concern about Hannah-Jones' tenure denial, including a letter from prominent Yale faculty and the AAUP. The letter warns of spreading conservative reaction by saying, "We call on all people of conscience to decry this growing wave of repression and to encourage a recommitment to the free exchange of ideas in our schools, workplaces, legislatures and communities."

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