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UNC trustees approve tenure for '1619 Project' journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones

Hannah-Jones, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, said the fight was about ensuring the freedom of Black academics.

In a 9-4 vote, the board of trustees at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill on Wednesday approved tenure for Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones.

The vote Wednesday after a closed session comes after a controversy about why Hannah-Jones, a renowned journalist and winner of a MacArthur Fellowship, known as a “Genius Grant," was not offered tenure in her appointment at the Hussman School of Journalism.

Hannah-Jones won the Pulitzer last year for her work on The New York Times Magazine's 1619 Project, which examines the consequences of slavery in the United States. That project has been assailed by some conservative critics and she has faced staunch criticism since releasing it 2019.

Board Vice Chair Gene Davis called Wednesday's vote to grant tenure "an important step in creating an even better university."

Hannah-Jones said in a statement that Wednesday's outcome was about more than her.

"This fight is about ensuring the journalistic and academic freedom of Black writers, researchers, teachers and students," she said. "We must ensure that our work is protected and able to proceed free from the risk of repercussions, and we are not there yet."

In the statement released by the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, the journalist also noted how difficult and taxing recent weeks have been.

"I need to take some time to process all that has occurred and determine what is the best way forward," she said.

The decision not to offer tenure initially to Hannah-Jones was not explained at Wednesday's special board meeting. Davis, the board vice chair, said the board has been subject to false claims in recent weeks.

"We remain committed to being a light shining brightly on the hill," Davis said. "We embrace and endorse academic freedom, open and rigorous debate, and scholarly inquiry, constructive disagreement — all of which are grounded in the virtue of listening to each other."

UNC announced in April that Hannah-Jones would join the university's Hussman School of Journalism and Media as the Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism in July. Instead of tenure, which had been expected, the university offered her a five-year fixed term with eligibility for tenure review at the end.

Last week, Hannah-Jones' legal team said she was repeatedly told that the position would come with a full tenured professorship, and she would not begin working until receiving the promised career-long appointment.

The tenure application was halted earlier this year after a trustee wanted more time to consider her qualifications. Several hundred students and faculty protested the failure to offer tenure on Friday.

Walter E. Hussman Jr., a major donor and newspaper publisher for whom the journalism school is named, wrote an email expressing concern in December to the school's dean and others. "I worry about the controversy of tying the UNC journalism school to the 1619 project," the news site The Assembly reported in May.

“The University has now voted to grant tenure to Ms. Nikole Hannah-Jones. I look forward to meeting her and discussing journalism,” Hussman said in a text message to The Associated Press on Wednesday. “Our plan is to continue to support the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media in advocating for the core values.”

UNC Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz at Wednesday's meeting called it "an important day" but said that the university still has more work to do but is committed to ensuring that all voices are heard.

"Ultimately, I am glad that the matter of tenure for Nikole Hannah-Jones has been resolved," Guskiewicz said. "Professor Hannah-Jones will add great value to our university. Our students are eager to learn from her, and we are ready to welcome her to the Carolina faculty as soon as possible."

The 1619 Project is named after the year in which a ship carrying 20 to 30 enslaved Africans arrived in the then-British colony of Virginia. It holds that America was truly founded in 1619, when the first enslaved people were brought to the Colonies, not in 1776.