‘A Breach of Trust’

UNC Chapel Hill professors demand a vote on Nikole Hannah-Jones’s tenure case.

 
May 25, 2021
 
Alice Vergueiro/Wikimedia Commons
Nikole Hannah-Jones

Faculty leaders at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill pressed their Board of Trustees Monday to vote immediately on the tenure case of Nikole Hannah-Jones. Delaying the vote further would only sow more doubt in university processes and the board itself, professors said during an emergency meeting of the Faculty Council’s executive committee.

“We are not just an executive body, we are a representative body, and I don’t think any of us -- even around the contentious issues that we’ve been through over the last couple of years -- I’m not sure any of us has seen the faculty more galvanized with emotion,” said committee member Eric Muller, the Dan K. Moore Distinguished Professor in Jurisprudence and Ethics at Chapel Hill. “I see no reason to hide the fact that we are outraged.”

Chapel Hill has indeed seen its share of controversies in recent years, including the university’s handling of the Silent Sam Confederate monument. Even among those incidents, the Hannah-Jones cases stands out for its implications for academic freedom: while Chapel Hill’s governing board does have the final say in who gets tenure there and who doesn’t, the board’s long-standing practice -- as is common across higher education -- is to accept faculty and administrative recommendations.

The board didn’t do that with Hannah-Jones, it was revealed last week. Instead, the board’s university affairs committee called for more time to review her tenure case, with the understanding that she’ll be reviewed again within five years. Since Hannah-Jones, a Pulitzer Prize winner and MacArthur Foundation “genius” grantee, had the strong backing of the faculty, her dean and, reportedly, the administration, it is widely suspected that she’s been targeted for her reporting on race. Hannah-Jones is most known for her work on The New York Times Magazine’s “1619 Project,” which re-examines the role of race in the nation's founding, and which has been criticized by detractors including former president Trump as being unpatriotic. Hannah-Jones is Black, and some also believe that she's being held to a different standard than her white would-be peers. An anonymous trustee has also attributed the board's treatment of her case to “politics.”

Hannah-Jones is still scheduled to join the university in July as the Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism. But the future of her appointment has been uncertain since the news about her tenure status broke.

“She’s got to know what’s going on for her life,” Mimi Chapman, Frank A. Daniels Distinguished Professor for Human Service Policy Information and chair of the Faculty Senate’s executive committee, said during the meeting Monday.

“They need to do it immediately,” Chapman continued, referring to the vote that the faculty committee is now demanding. “She’s waiting. She will take another job.”

A formal resolution that committee members passed unanimously Monday says, “The Faculty Executive Committee strongly urges the Board of Trustees to uphold the long tradition of respect for recommendations from faculty bodies in hiring and tenure cases, and to take up the matter of tenure of tenure for Nikole Hannah-Jones immediately.”

The executive committee, which represents the full Faculty Senate when it is not in session, including during the summer, also called on trustees to “explain to the fullest extent possible, without violating the law, the reasons for its decision. These steps must be undertaken to address a breach of trust in a process that is essential to our standing as a leading public research university.”

Last week, the board tried to say that Provost Bob Blouin did not recommend Hannah-Jones for tenure. But tenure cases that don’t have the provost’s approval don’t make it to the board in the first place. Some faculty members at Monday's meeting proposed writing another resolution calling on Blouin and Chancellor Kevin M. Guskiewicz to take a stronger public stance on tenure for Hannah-Jones. Other committee members wanted to keep their message to the trustees short and to the point. Chapman also asserted that Blouin and Guskiewicz “have been acting” in their “own realm.”

Hannah-Jones did not respond to a request for comment. She said on Twitter last week, “I have been overwhelmed by all the support you all have shown me. It has truly fortified my spirit and my resolve. You all know that I will be OK. But this fight is bigger than me, and I will try my best not to let you down.”

Richard Stevens, chair of the Chapel Hill board, did not respond to a request for comment. He has suggested that the university affairs committee hesitated to vote on Hannah-Jones’s tenure because she’s not from an academic background, but many tenured professors of journalism at Chapel Hill and elsewhere do not have Ph.D.s because they’ve spent decades working in the field.

Susan King, dean of the Hussman School of Journalism and Media at Chapel Hill, said in a newsletter Sunday that she and other deans, along with members of the Hussman Foundation Board and the Board of Advisers, have written to Hannah-Jones urging her to join the school.

“Many believe her involvement in the university and her talent in the classroom are paramount and want her to join our faculty as a distinguished professor," King said. "And we steadfastly believe that she deserves tenure.” 
 

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