Pulitzer-winning journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones chooses Howard University after tenure tug-of-war with UNC

Free Press staff, wire reports | 7/8/2021, 6 p.m.
Acclaimed journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones, who won a Pulitzer Prize last year for her groundbreaking work on the legacy of slavery …
Ms. Hannah-Jones

Acclaimed journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones, who won a Pulitzer Prize last year for her groundbreaking work on the legacy of slavery in the “1619 Project” that she spearheaded for the New York Times Magazine, announced Tuesday that she will not join the faculty at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill following an extended tenure fight marked by allegations of racism and conservative backlash about her work.

Instead, Ms. Hannah-Jones has accepted a chaired professorship at Howard University, a historically Black school in Washington, where she also will start a new Center for Journalism and Democracy.

The dispute over whether North Carolina’s flagship public university would grant Ms. Hannah-Jones a lifetime faculty appointment had prompted weeks of outcry from within and beyond its Chapel Hill campus. Numerous professors and alumni voiced frustration, and Black students and faculty questioned during protests whether the predominantly white university values them.

And while the UNC Board of Trustees belatedly offered her tenure on June 30, Ms. Hannah-Jones said in an interview with The Associated Press that the unfairness of how she was treated as a Black woman steered her toward turning the offer down.

“I wanted to send a powerful message, or what I hope to be a powerful message, that we’re often treated like we should be lucky that these institutions let us in,” said Ms. Hannah-Jones, who earned a master’s degree from UNC’s journalism school. “But we don’t have to go to those institutions if we don’t want to.”

The 45-year-old Ms. Hannah-Jones, whose work also has been recognized with journalism’s Peabody and Polk awards and a MacArthur “Genius Grant” Fellowship, noted that she hadn’t sought the job but was recruited by UNC’s journalism dean before her tenure application stalled late last year amid objections by a powerful donor and concerns by conservatives about her work.

Ms. Hannah-Jones will instead accept a tenured position as the Knight Chair in Race and Journalism at Howard University, which also announced Tuesday that award-winning journalist and author Ta-Nehisi Coates is joining its faculty.

Mr. Coates, a Howard alumnus, received national attention for his article, “The Case for Reparations,” published in 2014 in The Atlantic. He, too, has received a MacArthur genius grant and won the National Book Award for non-fiction in 2015 for his best-seller “Between the World and Me.”

“This is the faculty that molded me. This is the faculty that strengthened me,” Mr. Coates said. “Personally, I know of no higher personal honor than this.”

Ms. Hannah-Jones’ and Mr. Coates’ Howard appointments are supported by $20 million donated to Howard and announced Tuesday by three philanthropic foundations and an anonymous donor. The gifts are meant to bolster Howard’s investment in Black journalists, the university said.

“At such a critical time for race relations in our country, it is vital that we understand the role of journalism in steering our national conversation and social progress,” Howard President Wayne A. I. Frederick said in a news release.

The total includes $5 million each from the MacArthur Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the anonymous donor and the Knight Foundation.

The Knight Foundation’s $5 million investment in the university will endow the Knight Chair, with Ms. Hannah-Jones as the first to hold the position. It is the Knight Foundation’s first new Knight Chair in more than a decade and includes $500,000 to help launch a symposium at Howard to strengthen the teaching of journalism across HBCUs.

Ms. Hannah-Jones pointed out that every Knight Chair at UNC since the 1980s has entered that position as a full professor with tenure. But her tenure application submitted to UNC’s trustees last year was halted after a board member who vets the appointments raised questions about her non-academic background.

Instead, she initially was given a five-year contract, despite the fact that her predecessors were granted tenure when appointed. Last week, after weeks of mounting pressure, the trustee board finally voted to offer tenure.

UNC journalism school Dean Susan King, who first approached Ms. Hannah-Jones about teaching at UNC and supported her throughout her application, said in a statement that she hopes “that UNC can learn from this long tenure drama about how we must change as a community of scholars in order to grow.”

The university’s enrollment is approximately 60 percent white and 8 percent Black.

More than 30 faculty members of UNC’s Hussman School of Journalism and Media signed a statement Tuesday saying they supported Ms. Hannah-Jones’ decision and decrying “the appalling treatment of one of our nation’s most-decorated journalists by her own alma mater.”

“We will be frank: It was racist,” the statement said.

Asked if she agreed with their assessment, Ms. Hannah-Jones told AP that “the facts speak for themselves.”

According to published reports, the board held up a vote on tenure for Ms. Hannah-Jones after being contacted by Walter Hussman, an influential donor whose conservative views oppose the racial history and conclusions drawn in the 1619 Project.

The UNC journalism school is named for Mr. Hussman, an Arkansas newspaper publisher who pledged $25 million to the school. He has acknowledged in past interviews that he emailed university leaders challenging her work as “highly contentious and highly controversial.”

Mr. Hussman said in a phone interview on Tuesday that he still has “concerns” about the 1619 Project but that he respects Ms. Hannah-Jones.

In her written statement, Ms. Hannah-Jones cited political interference and the influence of a powerful donor to the journalism school.

“I cannot imagine working at and advancing a school named for a man who lobbied against me, who used his wealth to influence the hires and ideology of the journalism school, who ignored my 20 years of journalism experience, all of my credentials, all of my work, because he believed that a project that centered Black Americans equaled the denigration of white Americans,” her statement read. “Nor can I work at an institution whose leadership permitted this conduct and has done nothing to disavow it. How could I believe I’d be able to exert academic freedom with the school’s largest donor so willing to disparage me publicly and attempt to pull the strings behind the scenes? Why would I want to teach at a university whose top leadership chose to remain silent, to refuse transparency, to fail to publicly advocate that I be treated like every other Knight Chair before me?”

What excites Ms. Hannah-Jones most about her Howard appointment, she said, is the opportunity to help mold a new generation of journalists to serve “as the truth tellers in our democracy.”

“Unfortunately, for far too long, the institutions that are training Black journalists ... haven’t been able to get the type of resources they needed, to really compete and gain entry into newsrooms at the rates that they should. And I believe that we can change that.

“While it’s unfortunate how this came about, and I’m deeply saddened by what happened with my alma mater, this is not a consolation prize,” she said of her new position at Howard.

“This hopefully also sends a message to other Black folks, who’ve gotten to a certain status in their career, that we can come home and build our own.”