‘It was racist:’ UNC journalism faculty respond to Hannah-Jones decision, tenure controversy

Faculty from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Hussman School of Journalism and Media posted a statement Tuesday after Nikole Hannah-Jones’ announcement that she would reject an offer to take a position at UNC after weeks of controversy surrounding her fight for tenure.

“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,” writes a spokesperson on Hussman Faculty’s Medium page.

“We will be frank. It was racist,” they wrote.

Hannah-Jones was hired in April as the Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism at the Hussman School of Journalism and Media. She’s won a Pulitzer, a Peabody Award and a “genius grant” from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation has funded numerous Knight Chair faculty positions nationwide, and they typically carry tenure. But Hannah-Jones was offered a five-year contract instead. It was only after weeks of public discussion that the Board of Trustees voted last week to offer tenure with the position. By then it was too late.

Hussman faculty wrote, “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.”

Hannah-Jones took her brilliance to Howard University, a historically Black university, after explaining she has fought her entire life “proving she belonged in elite white spaces that were not built for Black people.”

Hussman faculty mirrored the sentiment of her statement, writing, “Ms. Hannah-Jones would have been only the second Black woman to earn tenure in the School of Journalism and Media, a 70-year-old institution.”

According to their statement, only 3.1% of tenured faculty are Black women.

By choosing to join Howard University, Hannah-Jones brings not only her experience, but also a large sum of donations and grants to benefit educating the next generation of Black journalists.

“The appointments are supported by $20 million donated by the MacArthur, Knight, and Ford foundations, as well as by an anonymous donor, to support Howard’s continued education of and investment in Black journalists,” wrote Howard University in a statement, regarding the appointment of both Hannah-Jones and another MacArthur fellow, Ta-Nehisi Coates.

“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,” wrote Wayne Fredrick, M.D., MBA, President of Howard University.

Hannah-Jones said this has been one of the most difficult periods of her life. “I just wanted to give back to the place that gave me so much. I was so excited to have the opportunity to engage with the students the way the professors engaged with me.”

Hussman faculty wrote that they offer Hannah-Jones a “profound apology for what she has endured” and promised that “it will not be in vain.”

Hannah-Jones rejected UNC’s offer after weeks of fighting for her right for tenure and students protesting at UNC.

She said, “I fought the battle that I wanted to fight. I deserve to be treated equally and have a vote on my tenure. I won that battle.”

However, she says her job is not to heal UNC.

“That’s the job of the people in charge of this situation in the first place,” she said.

UNC student body president Lamar Richards tweeted his thoughts, which mirrored hers, saying, “The fight was never for her to come to UNC, it was always bigger than that. History will remember this as the beginning of a revolution.”

According to the statement from Hussman faculty, signed by ten members of faculty, they will continue that fight to help heal UNC.

“The fight for the future of our university and school is just beginning. What has occurred over the past several months has brought long-ignored issues in our community and nation to the forefront,” they wrote. “We strive to live up to your ideals, and will continue to fight to make UNC a university for all people.”

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