The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill on Wednesday finally voted to grant tenure to award-winning investigative journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones, ending more than a month of controversy following the school’s initial reluctance.
Hannah-Jones, who won a Pulitzer Prize last year for her “1619 Project” of essays about Black history and centered on slavery, was told last month that she would not be granted tenure when she begins working as the Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism for the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media, a historically tenured position.
But on Wednesday, the UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees voted in favor of granting tenure to Hannah-Jones, following a series of protests led by students and the local community at large who helped pressure the university’s leadership to reconsider its stance.
The Raleigh News & Observer reported that nine of the 13 trustees voted in favor of Hannah-Jones being granted tenure. All four of the trustees who voted against granting Hannah-Jones’ tenure track are white men. In fact, 10 of the trustees are white men.
Hannah-Jones had previously given UNC an ultimatum and warned she would not accept the position without tenure.
Hannah-Jones began the rigorous tenure application process last summer and was supported by current faculty and the tenure committee. The process became muddled once it was submitted to the UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees.
Her supporters claimed the board succumbed to pressures from conservative critics who have denounced her work. In response, university leaders said the process was paused because Hannah-Jones didn’t come from a “traditional academic-type background.”
Hannah-Jones, who made sure to give a special thank you to the students who protested on her behalf, is officially expected to begin her new position at UNC on Thursday. The students started a petition that demanded the Board of Trustees hold a vote on Hannah-Jones’ tenure status.
“I want to acknowledge the tremendous outpouring of support I’ve received from students, faculty, colleagues and the general public over the last month — including the young people today who showed up at the Board of Trustees meeting, putting themselves at physical risk,” Hannah-Jones said in a statement after the Board of Trustees vote granted her tenure. “I am honored and grateful for and inspired by you all. I know that this vote would not have occurred without you.”
Hannah-Jones added: “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.”
Hannah-Jones was the most recent high-profile Black professor involved in a controversy over tenure. Months before her ordeal, Cornel West announced in February that he would be leaving Harvard University because it failed to give tenure to the famous professor of philosophy at Harvard Divinity School.
“I don’t know if you all have ever heard of any professor who’s had a chair without tenure, but I can rest be assured that it’s very, very, very rare for any professor in the history of Harvard,” West said at the time, echoing a similar sentiment expressed by Hannah-Jones about UNC.
While colleges and universities are hiring an increasing number of minority professors, very rarely are they put on a tenure track.
“Just as the doors of academe have been opened more widely than heretofore to marginalized groups, the opportunity structure for academic careers has been turned on its head,” a study conducted by TIAA Institute said in part. “The available jobs tend, less and less, to be the conventional ‘good’ jobs, that is, the tenure-track career-ladder jobs that provide benefits, manageable to quite good salaries, continued professional development opportunities — and, crucially, a viable future for academics.”