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UNC-Chapel Hill Community Reacts To Hannah-Jones' Decision Not To Accept Position At School; Black F

The Old Well on the UNC- Chapel Hill campus.
The Old Well on the UNC- Chapel Hill campus.

Updated at 11:45 a.m.

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill's community of Black students and faculty is calling for lasting change around racial equity on campus. Yesterday, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones chose not to accept a position at UNC-CH's journalism school following a protracted battle over tenure.

Student and faculty groups who supported Hannah-Jones in her tenure fight will hold a joint press conference Wednesday at noon to publicly issue their demands.

The UNC-Chapel Hill Black Student Movement has published a list of "54 Demands of the Chancellor." Among those, the student group wants to see a permanent monument for James Cates, a young Black man who was stabbed to death at the center of UNC's campus in 1970.

Other Black groups on campus, including the Carolina Black Caucus, continue to share their demands for change on campus.

In her public statement issued June 6, Hannah-Jones called attention to the standing calls to action from UNC's Black community.

She writes that "at a minimum" UNC-CH leaders should: "Agree to address the demands issued by the Carolina Black Caucus more than two years ago." Hannah-Jones said leaders should also "advocate to change the role that the Board of Trustees and the Board of Governors have over faculty governance."

On Tuesday, Hannah-Jones told CBS This Morning that it was "embarrassing" to not be initially considered for tenure at her alma mater after the journalism school actively recruited her to be a professor.

"I didn't want this to become a public scandal," Hannah-Jones said. "I didn't want to drag my university through the pages of newspapers."

In her detailed written statement, Hannah-Jones described her fond memories of studying journalism in Chapel Hill, but said she could not accept a professorship after how she was treated. She will instead accept a similar offer, with tenure, at Howard University, a private historically Black school.

"I won the battle for tenure," Hannah-Jones wrote. “But I also get to decide what battles I continue to fight."

After UNC-CH trustees delayed a vote on her tenure application for months — sparking protests and numerous statements of support from students, alumni and faculty — last week, the university's trustees voted 9-to-4 to offer her tenure.

Tenure confers a lifetime appointment to the university and academic freedom to pursue research interests. Hannah-Jones' work at The New York Times Magazine has centered on the legacy of racism in the United States, most notably with the Pulitzer Prize-winning 1619 Project, which some conservatives have criticized.

Hannah-Jones has said top university officials never explained why trustees did not take up her vote following a unanimous recommendation by a faculty committee in November, but prominent donor Walter Hussman has publicly opposed her appointment to the journalism school that bears his name.

In a public letter published on Medium, over 45 faculty members of UNC's Hussman School of Journalism and Media decried the treatment of Hannah-Jones by UNC-CH leaders.

"While disappointed, we are not surprised. We support Ms. Hannah-Jones’s choice. The appalling treatment of one of our nation’s most-decorated journalists by her own alma mater was humiliating, inappropriate, and unjust. We will be frank: It was racist," faculty members wrote.

Susan King, the dean of the UNC journalism school, had rigorously sought Hannah-Jones to join the school's faculty.

"Well, of course I'm disappointed," King said.

King said that in watching the interview on CBS she could tell how difficult the decision was for Hannah-Jones.

"We've been through a lot as a school," King said. "Today I'm celebrating her, her decision, the fact that she will continue to be a force with student journalists."

In a media statement, UNC-CH Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz says he was also "disappointed" in Hannah-Jones' decision.

"I recognize there are still questions and a great deal of work ahead. I am absolutely committed to pressing on and partnering with all those who desire to make Carolina a more welcoming place," Guskiewicz said.

During the CBS This Morning interview, Hannah-Jones said Guskiewicz had not reached out to her since the tenure decision was initially made.

"To this day, neither the chancellor or the provost or anyone on the board of trustees has ever told me why my tenure was not taken up in November, why it was not taken up in January," said Hannah-Jones.

Howard University announcedTuesday it has hired Hannah-Jones as its inaugural Knight Chair in Race and Journalism, alongside Ta-Nehisi Coates, with financial support from the Knight Foundation.

Hannah-Jones will also found the Center for Journalism and Democracy at Howard.

King said Hannah-Jones will not lose her connection to UNC-Chapel Hill. The investigative journalist has visited the university for public lectures and delivered the journalism school's commencement address in 2017.

"I know she'll be a loyal Tar Heel to us and our students," King said. "But we will really miss out on having a loyal colleague like her."

Deen Freelon, an associate professor at the Hussman School of Journalism and Media gave his reaction in a Twitter thread, expressing his pain at the outcome and inviting future faculty and students to "put in the work for the change you want."

UNC Student Body President Lamar Richards was a prominent supporter of Hannah-Jones and helped initiate a formal petition among university trustees to call the special meeting to vote on her tenure application.

In a Tweet Tuesday, Richards took the long view, saying "history will remember this as the beginning of a revolution."

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.

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.
Laura Pellicer is a producer with The State of Things (hyperlink), a show that explores North Carolina through conversation. Laura was born and raised in Montreal, Quebec, a city she considers arrestingly beautiful, if not a little dysfunctional. She worked as a researcher for CBC Montreal and also contributed to their programming as an investigative journalist, social media reporter, and special projects planner. Her work has been nominated for two Canadian RTDNA Awards. Laura loves looking into how cities work, pursuing stories about indigenous rights, and finding fresh voices to share with listeners. Laura is enamored with her new home in North Carolina—notably the lush forests, and the waves where she plans on moonlighting as a mediocre surfer.