Jul 6, 2021 - Politics & Policy

Creator of 1619 Project rejects UNC position, joins Howard after tenure controversy

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones announced Tuesday that she will not be teaching at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill this fall, following a national controversy over an initial decision by the school's board of trustees not to offer her tenure.

The state of play: Hannah-Jones, the creator of the New York Times' 1619 Project about the history of slavery and its lasting impact in the U.S., will be joining Howard University as the tenured Knight Chair in Race and Journalism. Award-winning writer Ta-Nehisi Coates will also join the faculty of the historically Black university.

The big picture: Hannah-Jones and the 1619 Project have been heavily criticized by Republicans, who claim the essay contains historical inaccuracies and undermines patriotism. The project also drew considerable backlash from some prominent historians.

  • In April, UNC's board of trustees set aside Hannah-Jones' tenure application despite recommendations from the school's faculty and administrators. The school announced that it would instead offer her a fixed five-year contract.
  • The decision sparked backlash and a national controversy, with reports emerging that a prominent donor to UNC's journalism school had raised concerns about Hannah-Jones' academic credentials and impartiality.
  • After weeks of public pressure and scrutiny, the board of trustees voted 9-4 in a closed session last week to grant Hannah-Jones tenure. She characterized the initial delay as politically motivated and said it amounted to "illegal discrimination."

What they're saying: "I've spent my entire life proving that I belong in elite white spaces that were not built for Black people," Hannah-Jones said on CBS "This Morning," where she announced the decision.

  • "I got a lot of clarity through what happened with University of North Carolina. I decided I didn't want to do that anymore, that Black professionals should feel free, and actually perhaps an obligation to go to our own institutions and bring our talents and resources to our own institutions and help to build them up as well," she continued.
  • "This is not my fight. I fought the battle I wanted to fight. Which is I deserve to be treated equally and have a vote on my tenure. I won that battle. It's not my job to heal the University of North Carolina. That's the job of the people in power who created the situation."

Faculty members of UNC's Hussman School of Journalism addressed Hannah-Jones' decision in an open letter on Tuesday, writing:

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.
Our school highly regards Ms. Hannah-Jones’s work, ability, and achievements. We regret that the top echelons of leadership at UNC-Chapel Hill failed to follow established processes, did not conduct themselves professionally and transparently, and created a crisis that shamed our institution, all because of Ms. Hannah-Jones’s honest accounting of America’s racial history. It is understandable why Ms. Hannah-Jones would take her brilliance elsewhere.

Read the full letter.

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