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Nikole Hannah-Jones will not join UNC faculty without tenure

Nikole Hannah-Jones' legal team said in a letter that the award-winning journalist won't accept any "inferior terms of employment" at UNC.
2021 Morehouse College Commencement
Nikole Hannah-Jones speaks at commencement at Morehouse College on May 16 in Atlanta.Marcus Ingram / Getty Images file

The award-winning journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones will not join the faculty at University of North Carolina “without the protection and security of tenure,” her legal team said this week in a letter to school officials following weeks of controversy over the board of trustees’ failure to grant her tenure.

In the letter, first reported by NC Policy Watch, Hannah-Jones’ legal team said she was “repeatedly told” her position as a Knight chair in race and investigative journalism would come with a full tenured professorship. Therefore, although she is not withdrawing her tenure application, Hannah-Jones won’t begin working at the university until she receives the promised career-long appointment.

“Since signing the fixed-term contract, Ms. Hannah-Jones has come to learn that political interference and influence from a powerful donor contributed to the Board of Trustees’ failure to consider her tenure application,” the letter reads. “In light of this information, Ms. Hannah-Jones cannot trust that the University would consider her tenure application in good faith during the period of the fixed-term contract.”

UNC-Chapel Hill's board of trustees decided not to approve tenure for Hannah-Jones at the Hussman School of Journalism and Media after backlash from conservatives who condemned her hiring. Instead, the university offered her a five-year fixed term with eligibility for tenure review at the end.

Among Hannah-Jones's critics was Walter E. Hussman Jr., a mega-donor for whom the journalism school is named. According to the news site The Assembly, Hussman said in an email to the school’s dean, Susan King, “I worry about the controversy of tying the UNC journalism school to the 1619 project.”

He added that he aligns more with critics of Hannah-Jones’ 1619 Project, including James McPherson and Gordon Wood, both historians who have publicly rebutted claims in the Project, which was published in 2019 in The New York Times. It holds that America was truly founded in 1619, when the first enslaved people were brought to the Colonies, not in 1776.

The board’s failure to act on Hannah-Jones’ tenure package sparked outrage from faculty and students at the university and others. The school lost esteemed Black recruits and faculty members, including renowned historian Malinda Maynor Lowery and chemistry recruit Lisa Jones. The UNC Black Caucus said 70 percent of its members, all UNC employees, are considering leaving the university, with at least half already seeking new employment.

The UNC student body president, Lamar Richards, criticized the university in an open letter calling the controversy "just the most recent and glaring example of our university choosing to prioritize the demands of money and power, rather than its students, faculty, and staff.”

School officials declined to comment on the specifics of the letter, but Joel Curran, UNC-Chapel Hill’s vice chancellor of communications, confirmed to NBC News that Hannah-Jones’ attorneys have contacted the university. “While this remains a confidential personnel matter ... we feel she will add great value to the Carolina campus.”

The latest news comes weeks after a June 4 deadline for the university to offer Hannah-Jones tenure or face a federal lawsuit. Attorneys with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and law firms Levy Ratner and Ferguson Chambers & Sumter reportedly wrote in documents obtained by NC Policy Watch that they “intend to bring litigation to vindicate Ms. Hannah-Jones’ rights under federal and state law” should the university fail to offer her a tenured professorship by June 4.

In the new letter, Hannah-Jones’ legal team highlighted that the “inferior terms of employment” offered to her resulted from unconstitutional free speech violations and “discrimination and retaliation” on the basis of race and sex.

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