After weeks of contentious debate, Pultizer prize-winning journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones was granted tenure by the board of trustees at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill on Wednesday. In a 9 to 4 vote, Hannah-Jones can now assume her duties as a tenured professor.
“Today we took another important step in creating an even better university,” trustee Gene Davis said in an official statement after the announcement went public. “We welcome Nikole Hannah-Jones back to Chapel Hill.”
Davis also noted that the board’s decision to grant tenure to Hannah-Jones reaffirmed the university’s highest values of “academic freedom, open scholarly inquiry, commitment to diversity of all types, including viewpoint diversity, and promotion of constructive disagreement and civil public discourse.”
“Our university is not a place to cancel people or ideas,” he continued. “Neither is it a place for judging people or calling them names like ‘woke’ or ‘racist.’ Our university is better than that. Our great nation is better than that.”
The board’s decision came just a day before Hannah-Jones was scheduled to officially begin her appointment at the UNC's Hussman School of Journalism and Media as the Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism. A correspondent for The New York Times Magazine and an alumnus of UNC, earning a Master’s degree in 2003, Hannah-Jones accepted the position believing that she would be granted tenure. Since the early 80s, every person who held Knight Chair received tenure. Instead, she was offered a five-year contract with an opportunity for a tenure review.
In a break with the UNC’s tradition, Hannah-Jones later discovered that her appointment did not come with tenure. After seeking legal counsel about the process that the university was conducting, she decided she would not accept the position unless she was offered tenure.
Since her appointment last year, the board of trustees never held a vote on whether to give Hannah-Jones tenure. Although she received recommendations from the university’s chancellor, the provost, and the dean and faculty of the Hussman School, her tenure process was left hanging in the balance.
Walter Hussman, a wealthy UNC donor and who UNC’s journalism school is named after, was one of the key figures in opposing Hannah-Jones’ bid for tenure. Hussman, who is also an alumnus, cited her work on the 1619 Project which examines the historical legacy of slavery in America, saying her work undermined the school’s values. Hussman expressed his concerns to the trustees and administrators but he left the decision up to the university NPR reported.
“Today’s outcome and the actions of the past month are about more than just me. This fight is about ensuring the journalistic and academic freedom of Black writers, researchers, teachers, and students,” Hannah-Jones said in a statement.
“We must ensure that our work is protected and able to proceed free from the risk of repercussions, and we are not there yet. These last weeks have been very challenging and difficult and I need to take some time to process all that has occurred and determine what is the best way forward,” she continued.
The university’s chancellor, Kevin M. Guskiewicz, said the board’s vote was a significant one.
“Professor Hannah-Jones will add great value to our university,” he said. “Our students are eager to learn from her, and we are ready to welcome her to the Carolina faculty as soon as possible.”
After months of being embroiled in the controversy, Hannah-Jones was extremely grateful for the outpouring of support she received throughout the process.
“I want to acknowledge the tremendous outpouring of support I have received from students, faculty, colleagues, and the general public over the last month—including the young people who showed up today at the Board of Trustees meeting, putting themselves at physical risk,” she added.
“I am honored and grateful for and inspired by you all. I know that this vote would not have occurred without you.”