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Nikole Hannah-Jones Explains 'Difficult' Decision To Reject UNC Tenure After 'Humiliating' Denial

Nikole Hannah-Jones is interviewed at her home in the Brooklyn borough of New York, Tuesday, July 6, 2021. (John Minchillo/AP)
Nikole Hannah-Jones is interviewed at her home in the Brooklyn borough of New York, Tuesday, July 6, 2021. (John Minchillo/AP)

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones is going to Howard University.

The New York Times reporter and creator of “The 1619 Project” will be the new Knight Chair in Race and Reporting at the revered historically Black college.

Her decision comes after the board of trustees at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill — her alma mater that she loved — denied her tenure, prompting an outcry that the decision was based on her race, gender and reporting on racial inequality.

“The burden of working for racial justice is laid on the very people bearing the brunt of the injustice, and not the powerful people who maintain it. I say to you: I refuse,” she wrote in a statement.

But the initial decision to leave UNC wasn't an easy one. Hannah-Jones says she was elated to go back to the place that launched her journalism career and guide young Tar Heels burgeoning into the industry.

Hannah-Jones says she was recommended unanimously by the faculty amid the tenure review process. The university's political appointees from a Republican-led state turned the matter into an "ugly and public battle" where they voted not on her journalism credentials but rather political reasons, she says.

Once news of the messy tenure situation made national headlines — since the 1980s, no one had ever been denied tenure at UNC in the position she was offered — Hannah-Jones says she found some clarity: She was done fighting to prove herself.

Starting in the second grade, Hannah-Jones was part of a bussing program that brought her to white schools. After years of pushing for fair treatment while achieving high levels of success working and going to school in white institutions, the public tenure debacle made the 45-year-old realize she wanted to bring her skills to a place where she'd be respected.

"I really wanted to take my talents and the resources I could bring and bring them to an institution that was actually built for Black uplift and Black excellence, that wasn’t built in opposition to the work that I want to do and me as a human being," she says.

To this day, she says no one in a position of power at UNC has explained to her why she was treated differently than the other Knight Chairs before her — all of whom were white. The university's chancellor and provost did not speak up on her behalf either, she says.

The lack of transparency, going through the long tenure process only to be denied and the public controversy surrounding it was "humiliating personally and professionally to be treated that way by your alma mater," she says, "the same university that had just a few months earlier inducted me into its Media & Journalism Hall of Fame."

Hannah-Jones says she didn't speak out publicly at first because the trustees' decision was so painful. Plus, she wanted to give back to the university through her position.

Her hurt turned to anger, she says.

"I’ve spent my career writing about inequality, about racial discrimination, about how Black Americans are often not treated fairly by American institutions," she says, "and then to become so blatantly subjected to that same treatment was enraging."

Her conclusion to deny the tenure — which the university eventually voted to grant her months later — was her way of determining her own worthiness, she says.

"The 1619 Project," a long-form journalism project Hannah-Jones developed for The New York Times, looked at the role of slavery and how it shaped American capitalism and democracy. While the project was widely acclaimed, some scholars argued that Hannah-Jones injected ideology into the history.

She says she wasn't surprised by the pushback. The original reason for publishing the project was to center the largely ignored consequences of slavery and debunk versions of history that reinforce American exceptionalism, she says.

While it's normal for historians to challenge their colleagues' interpretations of the past, Hannah-Jones didn't expect a small group of respected history experts to argue "The 1619 Project" was erroneous in what she says was an effort to discredit the work.

To Hannah-Jones, this attempt was "more about challenging who gets to shape the national narrative," something that also speaks to the current cultural debate about teaching critical race theory, a conversation that exists because conservatives found a "good wedge issue," she says.

No fifth graders are going to be taught critical race theory, a high-level academic theoretical framework mostly taught in graduate-level courses, she says. But the intense outcry against it says it all, she says.

The critical race theory backlash is connected to the massive civil rights protests that occurred after the killing of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, she says. People deny structural inequalities in order to flip the narrative back to preserving the status quo, she says.

It's a large part of why her vision as Knight Chair will include training the next generation of journalists to interrogate powerful political institutions, social structures and policies through reporting with a historical and racial lens. She will establish the Center for Journalism and Democracy, which will teach unflinching investigative journalism skills and data reporting to students at Howard and other HBCUs.

With rights such as free speech and voting being infringed upon, Hannah-Jones says now is the time for political journalists to rise to the occasion and not get stuck thinking institutions will self correct on their own.

"We are in a very dangerous period if the media does not act as the firewall for our democracy," she says.

As she looks forward to working with Howard University, Hannah-Jones reiterates how hard walking away from UNC was for her. She hopes her message stirs change: Those who suffer from injustices should not be the ones fighting to solve the problems people in power have created.

"It is time for the people who have power to take responsibility for the structures that they uphold," she says. "And if there’s going to be true healing, it cannot be based on the sacrifice of those who have already sacrificed so much."

Samantha Raphelson produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Jill Ryan. Serena McMahon adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.