Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones has told the University of North Carolina that she will not join its faculty as planned next month unless she is granted tenure, according to a letter from her lawyers.
Hannah-Jones, a correspondent for The New York Times Magazine, had agreed to teach at the university’s Hussman School of Journalism and Media as the Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism. Her appointment drew bitter opposition from conservatives nationwide over Hannah-Jones’ role in creating The Times’ 1619 Project — an ambitious series that reframed U.S. history through the lens of slavery — and she was ultimately denied tenure.
The letter, initially reported by NC Policy Watch and published on its site, pointedly referred to political interference by an unnamed “powerful donor” whose influence “contributed to the board of trustees’ failure to consider her tenure application.”
“In light of this information, Hannah-Jones cannot trust that the university would consider her tenure application in good faith during the period of the fixed-term contract,” according to the letter, which was dated Monday.
The letter appears to refer to Walter E. Hussman Jr., a newspaper publisher after whom the university’s journalism school is named and who has raised concerns about Hannah-Jones’ hiring. The letter was signed by a lawyer from the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund Inc. and the law firms Levy Ratner and Ferguson Chambers & Sumter, which are representing Hannah-Jones.
Joel Curran, a spokesman for the University of North Carolina, confirmed that the school had been contacted by the legal team. He said Hannah-Jones’ job status was “a confidential personnel matter,” adding, “We feel she will add great value to the Carolina campus.”
The university’s tenure committee and chancellor, along with the journalism school’s dean and faculty, recommended her for tenure upon her hiring, which was announced in April. But the school’s board of trustees decided to take no action, effectively denying tenure to Hannah-Jones. Instead, she accepted a five-year contract, with an option for review.
In May, Hannah-Jones, who received a master’s degree in journalism from the University of North Carolina in 2003, said she was considering filing a discrimination suit over the board’s failure to approve tenure.
Her legal team followed up Monday with the letter to the university’s lawyers saying that Hannah-Jones could not “begin employment with the university without the protection and security of tenure.” The letter said she had not withdrawn her application for tenure.
Hussman had criticized aspects of the 1619 Project in emails to university leaders, including Susan King, the dean of the Hussman School. But he said in an interview with The Times this month that he did not want to influence the board’s decision on Hannah-Jones.
“I really wanted to make them more knowledgeable about the 1619 Project,” said Hussman, the longtime publisher of The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in Little Rock and a UNC graduate. “And I thought, I’m now a lot more knowledgeable about it, having read it — not cursory but carefully.”
In an email on Wednesday, Hussman said that he did not know if he was the donor who was mentioned in the letter from Hannah-Jones’ legal team.
“There are other donors to UNC that have given far more to the university than I have,” he said, adding that he had not asked for a response to his concerns from the board.
The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund Inc. did not respond to a request for comment.
The 1619 Project, whose name is derived from the year that enslaved Africans were brought to the English colony of Virginia, drew early criticism from five prominent historians. The series became the center of a cultural debate partly because of a series of 1619 Project school lesson plans developed by the Pulitzer Center and offered on its website.
Last month, 1,619 University of North Carolina students and alumni signed a two-page advertisement published in The News & Observer of Raleigh, North Carolina, that called for Hannah-Jones to be given tenure. In addition, more than 200 academics and cultural figures — including author Ta-Nehisi Coates, filmmaker Ava DuVernay and historian Eric Foner — signed a letter published in The Root last month saying the board had displayed a “failure of courage” in its refusal to grant her tenure.
Republican lawmakers in nearly a dozen states have also proposed bills targeting the 1619 Project.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.