WASHINGTON – Journalists Nikole Hannah-Jones and Ta-Nehisi Coates are joining Howard University’s faculty, school officials announced Tuesday in a major recruiting victory for the prominent historically Black institution in the nation’s capital. It was a simultaneous setback for the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to lose Hannah-Jones after a long and remarkably contentious effort to recruit her.
The surprising development came less than a week after trustees for UNC-Chapel Hill voted to award tenure to Hannah-Jones. Initially, the public university hired her as a professor without the job-protection status. But its board of trustees approved tenure for her last Wednesday, after faculty members and students at Chapel Hill protested that she had been mistreated.
In an interview Tuesday on “CBS This Morning,” Hannah-Jones said she would not join the UNC faculty. “Very difficult decision,” she told Gayle King. “Not a decision I wanted to make.” The Pulitzer Prize winner said she believed a decision about tenure for her at UNC was delayed because of political opposition to her work and discrimination against her as a Black woman.
“It’s not my job to heal the University of North Carolina,” she said. “That’s the job of the people in power who created the situation in the first place.”
UNC Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz said he was disappointed Hannah-Jones would not be joining the Chapel Hill faculty but wished her the best at Howard. “I recognize there are still questions and a great deal of work ahead,” he said in a statement. “I am absolutely committed to pressing on and partnering with all those who desire to make Carolina a more welcoming place where every member of our community can realize their full potential.”
Susan King, dean of the UNC-Chapel Hill journalism school, who had championed tenure for Hannah-Jones, said she was disappointed to lose her to another university. “We wish her nothing but deep success and the hope that UNC can learn from this long tenure drama about how we must change as a community of scholars in order to grow as a campus that lives by its stated values of being a diverse and welcoming place for all,” King said in a statement.
UNC journalism faculty members lamented what had happened to Hannah-Jones and said they support her choice. “The appalling treatment of one of our nation’s most-decorated journalists by her own alma mater was humiliating, inappropriate, and unjust,” more than 30 professors and others affiliated with the Hussman School of Journalism and Media wrote in a blog post. “We will be frank: It was racist.”
Now Hannah-Jones will have tenure at Howard in the new position of Knight chair in race and journalism, starting this summer at the university in the District of Columbia Founded in 1867, two years after the Civil War, Howard has more than 9,000 students on a campus near Capitol Hill and is known as the Mecca for its leadership in Black higher education. It has drawn increasing attention recently as the alma mater of Vice President Kamala Harris and recipient of significant donations to expand its academic programs.
Billionaire philanthropist MacKenzie Scott last year gave Howard $40 million, one of series of gifts to historically Black colleges and universities that underlined the emerging potential of a sector of higher education that has long been overlooked or marginalized.
“I am so incredibly honored to be joining one of the most important and storied educational institutions in our country,” Hannah-Jones said in a statement. ” . . . One of my few regrets is that I did not attend Howard as an undergraduate, and so coming here to teach fulfills a dream I have long carried.”
Hannah-Jones will also found a Center for Journalism and Democracy at Howard. She said it will aim to train journalism students from historically Black schools to “accurately and urgently [cover] the challenges of our democracy with a clarity, skepticism, rigor and historical dexterity that is too often missing from today’s journalism.”
Coates, an award-winning author known for his work on topics including race and white supremacy, will be a writer-in-residence in the university’s College of Arts and Sciences, and hold the Sterling Brown chair in the English department. He said in an interview that he plans to teach a class in creative writing next year.
“That really is the community that made me,” Coates said. “I would not be who I am without the faculty at Howard.”
Coates also has plans to finish his bachelor’s degree, which he started at Howard in 1993. He hasn’t picked a major but said he’d like to learn more about math, science and economics.
Both appointments are supported by nearly $20 million from an anonymous donor, as well as the Knight Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, and the Ford Foundation, officials said. The additions come at a critical time for race relations in the United States, said Howard President Wayne Frederick.
“The both of them are, I would say, elite public intellectuals, both of whom are Black and I think have been weighing and participating in the narrative about America and its evolution,” Frederick said.
The twin hires represent an extraordinary coup for Howard. Coates and Hannah-Jones are highly regarded writers who have each produced high-impact work on urgent questions about race in America. Each, too, has received a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant.
Coates won a National Book Award in 2015 for the nonfiction work “Between the World and Me,” an exploration of violence against Black people and white supremacy in the United States written in the form of a letter to his son. He also is known for an influential 2014 article in the Atlantic magazine, “The Case for Reparations,” which argued that the nation should consider ways to compensate Black Americans for its long history of slavery and racial discrimination.
Hannah-Jones, a writer for the New York Times, won the Pulitzer Prize for commentary last year for her essay in the 1619 Project about slavery and history. She was the driving force behind the Times Magazine project, which sought to reexamine American history and the consequences of slavery starting with the arrival four centuries ago of enslaved African people in colonial Virginia. Hannah-Jones holds a bachelor’s degree from the University of Notre Dame and a master’s degree in journalism from UNC-Chapel Hill.
For UNC, Tuesday’s announcement could provoke recrimination and soul-searching. The 30,000-student public university had announced in late April that Hannah-Jones would join its faculty in July as the Knight chair in race and investigative journalism at the Hussman School of Journalism and Media. That position, like the one at Howard, would have been supported by the Knight Foundation.
But unlike previous Knight chairs at UNC, the initial appointment for Hannah-Jones as a journalism professor came through a five-year contract without tenure. UNC-Chapel Hill’s faculty and administrators had recommended tenure for her months earlier, but the board of trustees had not yet acted on that proposal, for reasons that were unclear.
Some reports indicated that political concerns about the 1619 Project had led the trustees to delay action. Walter E. Hussman Jr., an Arkansas newspaper publisher and major UNC donor for whom the journalism school is named, also raised questions last year about the plan to hire Hannah-Jones. Hussman denied influencing the school and said he did not threaten to withhold any donations.
In a statement issued through her attorneys, Hannah-Jones said Tuesday that she could not work at UNC’s Hussman School of Journalism and Media.
“I cannot imagine working at and advancing a school named for a man who lobbied against me, who used his wealth to influence the hires and ideology of the journalism school, who ignored my 20 years of journalism experience, all of my credentials, all of my work, because he believed that a project that centered Black Americans equaled the denigration of white Americans,” she said.
Reached by telephone, Hussman said the statement mischaracterized his actions and his views. “I don’t think the school should have any ideology,” he said. He said he wished he had been able to talk directly with Hannah-Jones. “I felt kind of a sense of sadness in seeing some of her comments,” he said. “I think if we’d had a chance to meet, her comments might have been different.”
Asked whether he would have done anything differently, in hindsight, Hussman declined to second-guess his actions. He said he took issue with the 1619 Project’s portrayal of the role of slavery and race in certain episodes of American history. “I would definitely continue to share my concerns,” he said.
Former president Donald Trump and other prominent Republicans have criticized the 1619 Project, saying it undermines patriotism and gives too much weight to issues of race and racism in American history.
The Republican-led legislature in North Carolina wields significant power over higher education in the state through appointments to the UNC system’s board of governors and UNC-Chapel Hill’s board of trustees.
Faculty members, students and other supporters of Hannah-Jones said the case posed a threat to academic freedom and showed inequities in the treatment of Black women in academia. A highly regarded candidate for a chemistry faculty position at UNC-Chapel Hill, who is African American, withdrew from consideration in solidarity with Hannah-Jones.
Pressure grew on trustees to approve tenure for Hannah-Jones as her attorneys wrote in a June letter that she would not accept a position at Chapel Hill without it. The trustees met in closed session last Wednesday to deliberate the case and approved tenure for Hannah-Jones on a public vote of 9 to 4.
Afterward, UNC officials praised Hannah-Jones and said they looked forward to welcoming her to campus as soon as possible. But Hannah-Jones signaled that the matter was not resolved. She said June 30 that she needed “to take some time to process all that has occurred and determine what is the best way forward.”
During the tenure fight at UNC, Frederick had laid the groundwork for her move to Howard. Frederick said he built a relationship with Hannah-Jones through Coates.
On the quiet Howard campus Tuesday, prospective students and parents ambled through the Yard, the main green, listening to a tour guide extol the school’s history and future. From a tower, bells marked the noon hour and then played “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” often referred to as the Black national anthem.
Sitting on a bench under a tree, rising senior Robert Linton III of Glen Elg, Md., was reading Franz Kafka’s “The Trial.” He said he was pleased to learn Coates and Hannah-Jones were coming to the school.
“Howard has been getting a lot of publicity lately,” said Linton, who transferred to Howard last year. “I think this is good news.”
Zachary Roberts, who is beginning his first year of medical school at Howard, said Hannah-Jones’s decision was a boon for Howard and other HBCUs.
“It’s great for smaller schools to finally be getting the recognition and excitement they deserve,” Roberts said. “I’m glad to hear she turned down a predominantly white institution and is bringing her talents to an HBCU to help some of us.”
– – –
The Washington Post’s Joe Heim contributed to this report.