Nikole Hannah-Jones won’t get tenure at UNC – the politics in that decision is hard to miss

Pulitzer Prize winner Nikole Hannah-Jones – Photo by Alice Vergueiro of TV Globo/Abraji/Wikimedia

 

By BRANDON TENSLEY

CNN

 

One might think that the prizewinning New York Times journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones would be a shoo-in for a tenured position at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

They would be wrong.

In April, UNC announced that Hannah-Jones – whose pathfinding career includes the creation of the 1619 Project, which reconceptualizes the national narrative by centering the enduring consequences of slavery – would in July join the Hussman School of Journalism and Media as the Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism.

But this week, it was revealed that her appointment didn’t come with tenure, in a break with tradition for that position. Instead, Hannah-Jones was offered a five-year teaching contract. Apparently, the university’s board of trustees made the decision – one notably at odds with the recommendation of the journalism faculty and tenure committee.

While the board has been silent about why it failed to tenure Hannah-Jones – a Pulitzer Prize and MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” winner – it’s impossible to ignore the politics in the decision.

Since its publication in 2019, the 1619 Project has inspired nothing short of a racial panic among conservatives.

“Critical race theory, the 1619 Project and the crusade against American history is toxic propaganda, ideological poison that, if not removed, will dissolve the civic bonds that tie us together, will destroy our country,” former President Donald Trump said last September, a mere two months before he lost the 2020 presidential election and threatened US democracy via baseless claims of mass voter fraud.

And this year, there’s been a shabby effort by Republican lawmakers in at least five states to pass bills that would prohibit the 1619 Project in schools or cut funding for ones that use the project to inform their curricula, as my CNN colleague Harmeet Kaur reported in February.

“What this legislation seeks to do is to paper over current divisions and current inequalities by not teaching about their histories,” James Grossman, the executive director of the American Historical Association, told Kaur.

Grossman added: “That’s not going to solve any problems. That’s just ignoring them.”

Yet there’s another layer here.

On Wednesday, University of Colorado Boulder professor Jennifer Ho, who previously had a faculty appointment at UNC, fit the controversy around Hannah-Jones and UNC into the specific context of North Carolina politics.

“Is this infuriating? Yes. Am I surprised? I started my academic career at UNC in 2003 and became a TT (tenure track) faculty in English in 2005. I was assured that NC was the new South and things seemed good – and then the GOP took over the state legislature in 2008. And things changed,” Ho wrote on Twitter, pointing out how Republicans began slashing budgets and weakening tenure because the university was supposedly too liberal.

The organized conservative assault against, among other things, the 1619 Project has reached a point where one of the US’s premier institutions has denied tenure to a leading Black intellectual and, in consequence, diminished the very history she seeks to elevate.

Neither Hannah-Jones nor the board has responded to requests for comment. But university spokesperson Joanne Peters Denny said in a statement, “The details of individual faculty hiring processes are personal protected information. The university is proud to host a Knight Chair at our leading Hussman School of Journalism and Media and looks forward to welcoming Nikole Hannah-Jones to campus.”

But such politicking recalls the words of W.E.B. Du Bois.

“We have too often a deliberate attempt so to change the facts of history that the story will make pleasant reading for Americans,” he wote in his 1935 book, Black Reconstruction in America.

“But are these reasons of courtesy and philanthropy sufficient for denying Truth?”

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