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UNC withholds tenure for "1619 Project" journalist after conservative backlash

UNC-Chapel Hill's board of trustees did not approve tenure for Nikole Hannah-Jones, which a report claims was due to conservative pressure against the decision

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill's journalism school is not offering Nikole Hannah-Jones, the Pulitzer Prize-winning creator of The New York Times' "1619 Project," a tenured professorship after facing pressure from conservatives.

Image: Nikole Hannah-Jones at The New York Times building on Dec. 20, 2016.
Nikole Hannah-Jones in 2016.Karsten Moran / Redux

NC Policy Watch first reported that the UNC-Chapel Hill's board of trustees had decided not to approve tenure for Hannah-Jones at the Hussman School of Journalism and Media. According to the 19th, she is the first person in this role at UNC-Chapel Hill to be denied tenure by the board.

The university announced last month that Hannah-Jones would join the school as the Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism in July. Conservatives quickly condemned the university's decision to offer Hannah-Jones the tenure-track position.

"This is a very political thing," one trustee reportedly told Policy Watch. "The university and the board of trustees and the Board of Governors and the Legislature have all been getting pressure since this thing was first announced last month. There have been people writing letters and making calls, for and against. But I will leave it to you which is carrying more weight."

A spokesperson for the journalism school, Kyle York, confirmed to NBC News that the board did not act on Hannah-Jones' tenure package. The board met on Wednesday and was expected to met again on Thursday, York said.

Hannah-Jones did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Hannah-Jones is a renowned award-winning journalist and winner of a MacArthur Fellowship, known as a “Genius Grant," in 2017. She led the 2019 New York Times "1619 Project," which holds that America was truly founded in 1619, when the first enslaved people were brought to the Colonies, not in 1776.

Hannah-Jones has faced staunch criticism since releasing the "1619 Project." Former President Donald Trump called it a "warped, distorted" portrayal of American history, and his administration countered by commissioning the "1776 Report," meant to combat the contents of the "1619 Project." Republican leaders even sought to deny funding to schools that used the Times project as a teaching resource.

Hannah-Jones addressed the backlash this year, noting that Republican efforts to limit using the "1619 Project" in schools is "about trying to prohibit the teaching of ideas that they don't like."

Despite the controversy, Hussman dean Susan King said she was "delighted" to welcome Hannah-Jones as an educator.

"While I am disappointed that the appointment is without tenure, there is no doubt in anyone’s mind that she will be a star faculty member," King said in a statement obtained by NBC News.

Through the hiring process, Hannah-Jones took on the "rigorous" tenure process and was "enthusiastically recommended" for the career-long appointment, York told NBC News. But when the board decided not to act on Hannah-Jones' tenure package, the university offered her a five-year fixed term position as "a professor of the practice, and she is eligible for tenure review after the fixed term," York said.

Photos apparently from Wednesday's meeting showed faculty, students and community members holding signs in support of Hannah-Jones as the trustees met.

Deen Freelon, an associate professor at Hussman, said he and other faculty were shocked and "blindsided" by the board's decision. Freelon said faculty members were told that the board chose not to act on Hannah-Jones' tenure because of her lack of academic experience.

"There have been other folks who have been tenured from various professional realms that have also not had a whole lot of academic experience. So that justification doesn't really hold a lot of water," Freelon said in an interview. "I've certainly observed that the board has a number of Republican and conservative individuals on it. I think you can make of that what you will."

The news quickly sparked outrage. A group of Hussman faculty members signed a letter condemning the board's decision and urging the university to grant Hannah-Jones tenure.

"Hannah-Jones’s distinguished record of more than 20 years in journalism surpasses expectations for a tenured position as the Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism," the letter reads. "The failure to offer Hannah-Jones tenure with her appointment as a Knight chair unfairly moves the goalposts and violates long-standing norms and established processes relating to tenure and promotion at UNC Chapel Hill."

UNC-Chapel Hill's Black Caucus said it would "stand in protest" of the decision, holding that the issue would negatively affect Black students.

"The decision to back out of offering Hannah-Jones tenure with her appointment is yet another example of UNC’s lack of commitment to ensuring that our Black student population sees themselves in their instructional faculty," the caucus said in a statement.

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