The University of North Carolina’s board of trustees voted Wednesday to grant tenure to Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones, ending a dispute that stretched on for more than a month.
Nine board members voted in favor of tenure for Hannah-Jones and four against during a special meeting on the campus in Chapel Hill, which some trustees attended via Zoom. The opening minutes were livestreamed on YouTube before the proceeding moved into a closed session.
Hannah-Jones, a correspondent for The New York Times Magazine, had accepted a position as the Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism at the university’s Hussman School of Journalism and was expected to start July 1.
Her appointment drew a backlash from conservatives who took issue with her involvement in the 1619 Project, a multimedia series from The Times Magazine that re-examined the legacy of slavery in the United States. Hannah-Jones won a Pulitzer Prize in 2020 for her introductory essay.
The UNC board had not held a vote on whether to give Hannah-Jones tenure during at least two meetings since her appointment last year, effectively denying tenure despite recommendations from the Hussman School dean and faculty, as well as the university’s provost and chancellor.
Previous Knight Chairs at the university received tenure. Hannah-Jones had been offered a five-year contract with an opportunity for tenure review.
UNC students, alumni and staff, as well as prominent cultural figures and academics, had criticized the board’s lack of action and repeatedly called on the trustees to approve the tenure application.
Hannah-Jones also received the support of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, a major donor to the university. The foundation’s CEO, Richard E. Besser, sent a letter to the board chairperson, Richard Stevens, on June 3, encouraging the trustees to “support the appointment of Ms. Hannah-Jones with full tenure privileges.”
On May 27, Hannah-Jones, who earned a master’s degree from the Hussman School in 2003, said in a statement that she had retained legal counsel and was considering filing a discrimination suit.
“I had no desire to bring turmoil or a political firestorm to the university that I love, but I am obligated to fight back against a wave of antidemocratic suppression that seeks to prohibit the free exchange of ideas, silence Black voices and chill free speech,” she said in the statement, which was issued by one of the law firms representing her, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund.
A Legal Defense Fund spokesperson said at the time that the university had unlawfully discriminated against Hannah-Jones “based on the content of her journalism and scholarship and because of her race.”
In a June 21 letter, Hannah-Jones’ legal team informed the university that she would not join the faculty without tenure, adding that she had not withdrawn her application for tenure.
The letter, published on NC Policy Watch, a North Carolina news site, said Hannah-Jones had prepared her tenure application with an expectation that it would be voted on by the board at its meeting last November. The matter was not addressed at that meeting, nor at a meeting in January, the letter said, and the board offered no explanation on why tenure had been withheld.
The letter added that Hannah-Jones, after signing her fixed-term contract, had learned of “political interference and influence from a powerful donor,” which she believed had contributed to the failure of the board to vote on the matter.
The “powerful donor” was apparently Walter E. Hussman Jr., the Arkansas newspaper publisher after whom the journalism school is named. In emails to university leaders, Hussman, who has pledged $25 million to the school, had expressed concerns about certain aspects of the 1619 Project and Hannah-Jones’ hiring.
But in an interview with The Times in June, Hussman said that, despite his misgivings, he did not want to influence the board’s decision. He added that the outcome of the matter would not affect his donations to the university.
The board of trustees reports to the university system’s board of governors, whose members are appointed by the Republican-controlled state legislature. Six of the 13 trustees are scheduled to reach the end of their terms on July 1.
A group of students, led by the campus’ Black Student Movement, showed up at the meeting Wednesday in support of Hannah-Jones. UNC Police officers were captured on video pushing some students away from the meeting room, in the Carolina Inn, after the board had gone into a closed session.
After the video was posted online, Hannah-Jones said on Twitter: “It should have been communicated how this meeting would go, that tenure proceedings are always held in closed session, and an attempt made to de-escalate. Instead Black students were shoved and punched because they were confused about the process. This is not right.”
Julia Clark, vice president of the Black Student Movement, said in an interview that there were about 75 in the group.
“The board literally put the police on Black students like dogs, literally put them on us like dogs, in front of media,” Clark said. She added that an officer had punched her “so hard that my mask fell off.”
“This university has repeatedly disrespected us and they have showed us they don’t care about Black lives,” she continued.
UNC did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the episode.