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UNC Black Students Mobilized For Nikole Hannah-Jones' Tenure Vote, But It's Not All They're Calling

The student body president at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill made a bold statement last week. In an open letter published by NC Policy Watch, Lamar Richards said that as a Black, gay student he cannot in good conscience ask prospective Black students to enroll at the school.

At a demonstration on campus Friday, he stood by that:

“When I wrote my letter saying if you were considering coming here as an incoming student to reconsider, the Chancellor and others at South Building and colleagues on the board [of trustees] said, ‘How dare you?’ And I asked them, ‘How dare you?’”

Lamar Richards is the student body president of UNC Chapel Hill.

Richards has played a critical role in pushing the university to consider tenure for Nikole Hannah-Jones, a Black journalist who built her career writing about racism, most notably with the 1619 Project.

As a voting member of UNC Chapel Hill's board of trustees, Richards submitted a petition to call for a vote on her tenure, and enough trustees joined that petition to force a special meeting today.

Many students of color have mobilized to demand the university grant Hannah-Jones tenure, which has been offered in the past to white professors hired for the same post at the UNC Hussman School of Media & Journalism.

Student leaders backed Richards' petition by organizing a campaign to email trustees to urge a vote after faculty submitted their recommendation for tenure months ago. Hannah-Jones was expected to begin a professorship at the journalism school on July 1.

Students say the university's inaction and delay on granting tenure to the Pulitzer prize-winning journalist — and alum — is indicative of how it feels to be a Black student at their predominantly white institution that's been rocked by racial controversies in recent years.

At a demonstration organized by the Black Student Movement to support Hannah-Jones, the group's vice president Julia Clark made clear that Black students' complaints against the university are longstanding.

“There are things that we've been asking for, screaming for, yelling for for decades, for centuries. This is not a new issue,” Clark said through a bullhorn.

The Black Student Movement released a list of 13 demands of the university beyond granting tenure for Hannah-Jones.

Clark said one of her complaints is the lack of Black faculty at UNC Chapel Hill. Even while majoring in African, African-American and Diaspora Studies she’s only had two Black professors.

"We are terrified, watching the professors that have made our UNC experience bearable leave because of the environment that this university has created,” Clark said.

Richards says it's been hard to watch several faculty of color announce their departures this summer, but he doesn't blame them.

“When I think about that, I am saddened and my heart aches and I still haven't really grappled with it, because three of the people that are leaving of color are mentors to me,” Richards said.

The lack of faculty diversity is just one issue, but students say it's exemplified by the university trustees not voting on tenure for Hannah-Jones.

Ruth Samuel graduated from the Hussman School of Journalism in May and was an officer with the Carolina Association of Black Journalists.

“I would say the general attitude, as per usual, is disappointed but not surprised,” said Samuel.

Samuel says one of her serious concerns as a student was that she often didn't feel safe with neo-Confederates on campus — a common occurrence during the public fight over the university's Silent Sam monument.

“In fact, I remember countless instances in which I've had to hide in my dorm room on South Campus because I was terrified,” Samuel said.

She recalls taking an alternate path to pick up her scholarship checks to avoid walking past neo-Confederates surrounding Silent Sam.

Samuel didn't feel protected on campus as a Black woman. Meanwhile, because of her identity, university officials often invited her to be a representative for Black students.

“They tout us for their diversity panels and all their pamphlets and want us to sit on all these miscellaneous committees and relegate us to the background while we do all this free labor continuously for this institution. And it's exhausting," Samuel said.

Samuel says these extra duties were a distraction. She remembers a time when she was working hard on a diversity initiative and realized she had missed a deadline to apply for an internship.

"Black students are always expected to do more, right? We can never just be students," she said.

Like Richards, Samuel said she wouldn't recommend UNC Chapel Hill to prospective Black students. Richards says too often, the controversies at the university put students in an uncomfortable position.

"I didn’t just wake up and decide I want to tell every incoming student of color to pursue other opportunities," Richards said. "I did that because I felt it was necessary — and it hurt."

This summer, Black students have put their weight behind supporting Hannah-Jones, and they can count one win.

A special board of trustees meeting is now scheduled for today, and students are waiting for the university's next move.

Editor's Note: The Dean of UNC's Journalism School Susan King is a member of WUNC’s Board of Directors, which is appointed by the UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees. WUNC maintains editorial independence in all news coverage, including stories involving UNC.

This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Ruth Samuel's last name.

Copyright 2021 North Carolina Public Radio

Liz Schlemmer is WUNC's Education Policy Reporter, a fellowship position supported by the A.J. Fletcher Foundation. She has an M.A. from the UNC Chapel Hill School of Media & Journalism and a B.A. in history and anthropology from Indiana University.