White conservatives in North Carolina tried to block a renowned Black journalist from becoming a tenured professor. They failed miserably.

by Nate Morris
tenure nikole hannah jones

Nikole Hannah-Jones, the Pulitzer prize winning journalist who helped bring the 1619 project to life, was approved for a tenured position as a professor at the University of North Carolina last week. It’s rare that tenure approval makes national news, but this process has been anything but normal for Hannah-Jones.

Despite the drawn out battle, after being re-approved for tenure, she ended up ditching the drama altogether and will teach at Howard University instead.

According to NBC News, Hannah-Jones’ once clear path to tenure was thrown into turmoil by a White man who lives thousands of miles away.

Walter E Hussman, Jr., a prominent donor to the university’s journalism school, voiced concern over her appointment.

White, conservative backlash seeks to stall critical conversations on race at UNC and nationwide

Hussman wrote in a letter to the school’s dean last year that he was worried “about the controversy of tying the UNC journalism school to the 1619 project”.  The Arkansas businessman went on to write that he did not find himself “in agreement” with Hannah-Jones. Hussman accused the renowned journalist of “manipulating historical facts” as a means of “pushing an agenda”.

Mr. Hussman seemed to take particular issue with Hannah-Jones’ reporting that “for the most part, Black Americans fought alone” in the post-WWII movement for civil rights. Hussman’s email expressed frustration about the exclusion of “courageous White southerners” he felt also fought for equality.

White anger over the 1619 Project and Critical Race Theory has spurred backlash from conservative groups across the country.  Many Republican politicians have gaslighted their base with false claims that the curricula are “anti-White” and “anti-American”.  Legislatures are passing bills to ban teachers from accurately teaching systemic racism in public schools in states across the country.

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In Oklahoma, the passage of HB 1775 sparked such controversy that it ultimately resulted in Governor Stitt’s removal from the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre Commission.

Protests erupt at UNC as board of trustees caves to conservative pressure

As conservative anger mounted, the school’s board of trustees chose to offer Hannah-Jones a non-tenured, five-year position as a professor.  This offer, according to NC Policy Watch, breaks with nearly 40 years of tradition of providing celebrated journalists with tenured positions. 

Hannah-Jones refused the initial offer. Her legal team maintains she was “repeatedly told the position would come with a full-tenured professorship”.

UNC Chapel-Hill students and community members responded to the pared-down offer with protest. Demonstrators across the campus have been demanding the university uphold its promise of a full-tenured position.

The school’s Black caucus also condemned the school’s revised offer.  The group issued a statement which read in part:

The decision to back out of offering Hannah-Jones tenure with her appointment is yet another example of UNC’s lack of commitment to ensuring that our Black student population sees themselves in their instructional faculty.”

Students and faculty successfully advocate for renowned reporter’s tenure

The protest and backlash ultimately proved successful. Last Wednesday, the school’s board of trustees voted to offer Hannah-Jones a full-tenured professorship at the university’s flagship journalism school.

Following the vote, Hannah-Jones issued a statement calling for the continued elevation of Black voices in academia across the nation.

“This fight is about ensuring the journalistic and academic freedom of Black writers, researchers, teachers and students,” the Pulitzer prize winning journalist wrote.

“We must ensure that our work is protected and able to proceed free from the risk of repercussions. We are not there yet.”

Hannah-Jones thanked the university’s students, faculty and community who stood in support of her work.

“These last weeks have been very challenging and difficult,” she said. “I need to take some time to process all that has occurred and determine what is the best way forward.”

Yet, in a CBS interview with Gayle King on Tuesday, Hannah-Jones announced her decision to accept a tenured position at Howard University, an historically Black University. The UNC alumna will take on the role as inaugural Knight Chair in Race and Journalism and will begin her faculty role this summer.

“We are at a critical juncture in our democracy, and yet our press does not reflect the nation it serves and too often struggles to grasp the danger for our country as we see growing attacks on free speech and the fundamental right to vote,” Hannah-Jones said in a statement.

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“In the storied tradition of the Black press, the Center for Journalism and Democracy will help produce journalists capable of accurately and urgently covering the challenges of our democracy with a clarity, skepticism, rigor and historical dexterity that is too often missing from today’s journalism.”

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3 comments

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[…] announcement comes after White conservatives in North Carolina tried to block her from becoming a tenured professor at the University of North […]

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