In 9-4 vote, UNC Board of Trustees approves tenure for Nikole Hannah-Jones

Orange County News

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (WNCN/AP) – The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill voted Wednesday to offer a tenured position to award-winning investigative journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones.

The UNC Board of Trustees voted 9-4 to approve the move. It brings an end to weeks of tension on campus.

Hannah-Jones was a key architect of The 1619 Project for The New York Times Magazine that explored the bitter legacy of racism. UNC announced in April that the Pulitzer Price winner would be joining the faculty in July. She had accepted a five-year contract to join the journalism school’s faculty as the Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism.

Earlier in the year, Hannah-Jones’ tenure application was halted because she didn’t come from a “traditional academic-type background,” and a trustee who vets the lifetime appointments wanted more time to consider her qualifications, university leaders had said.

The school has said little about why tenure wasn’t offered, but a prominent donor revealed that he had emailed university leaders challenging her work as “highly contentious and highly controversial” before the process was halted.

Tensions came to a head during Wednesday’s special meeting when students had to be removed so the board could go into a closed session.

“Why wasn’t that communicated?” professor Deborah Stroman asked of why students weren’t better made aware of tenure discussions being private. “Maybe someone could have grabbed the mic and said it, or someone could have just called a student over and said this is why we’re doing this.

“We wouldn’t have ended up with the violent activities, the assault back and forth, the police and the students, which had now gone viral to the world and again, it’s another way that UNC is going to look bad again.”

Taliajah Vann, president of the Black Student Movement added: “You allowed 75 students into this space, most likely knowing you were going to close the session and instead of communicating to students in advance that this session is going to be closed for whatever reason. It’s just, ‘No, we’re shutting you out of this space.’”

Even though Hannah-Jones was granted tenure, some students after the vote expressed frustrations with the way administrators handled the process.

“We are not going to be treated this way in a campus that we built, on a campus our ancestors built, and put their blood and sweat and tears into,” Vann said.

Some conservatives have complained about The 1619 Project, which focused on the country’s history of slavery.

UNC’s Vice Chair Gene Davis said he’s meeting with students.

“I want their Carolina experience to be extraordinary and in any way that it’s not I want to help change that, be an agent for change to make a difference,” Davis said.

Journalism school alumni Carol Shirley said the tenure track decision is not the end.

“It’s a good day to be a Tar Heel,” she said. “I’m kind of proud today. There’s more to be done, but I love this school and I’m proud to be here.”

Another UNC official released a statement regarding the incident:

 “Approximately 75 members of the public attended today’s Board of Trustees meeting and demonstrated peacefully.  After the board voted to move into closed session pursuant to the North Carolina open meetings law, the demonstrators remained for a few minutes to express themselves. UNC Police then instructed the group to depart, and most did. A small number of individuals did not leave the meeting when asked. UNC Police followed protocol and moved those protestors into the hall. We respect the right of our community to peacefully express themselves, but the law is clear that demonstrators cannot disrupt public meetings and proceedings. The situation was resolved with no injuries and proceedings were able to continue without further interruption. The officers on the scene dispute the allegation made by the demonstrators, however anytime an individual makes a claim of excessive force, UNC Police will review the claim.” 

George Battle, Vice Chancellor for Institutional Integrity and Risk Management

Gov. Roy Cooper commented on the tenure decision Wednesday, saying UNC’s Board of Trustees “did the right thing.”

Hannah-Jones also released a statement through the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. following the vote:

I want to acknowledge the tremendous outpouring of support I have received from students, faculty, colleagues, and the general public over the last month – including the young people who showed up today at the Board of Trustees meeting, putting themselves at physical risk. I am honored and grateful for and inspired by you all. I know that this vote would not have occurred without you.

Today’s outcome and the actions of the past month are about more than just me. This fight is about ensuring the journalistic and academic freedom of Black writers, researchers, teachers, and students. We must ensure that our work is protected and able to proceed free from the risk of repercussions, and we are not there yet. These last weeks have been very challenging and difficult and I need to take some time to process all that has occurred and determine what is the best way forward.”

Nikole Hannah-Jones

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