SAR’s Academic Freedom Monitoring Project investigates and reports attacks on higher education with the aim of raising awareness, generating advocacy, and increasing protection for scholars, students, and academic communities. Learn more.

Date of Incident: May 19, 2021

Attack Types: Loss of Position

Institution(s):University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Region & Country:Americas | United States of America

New or Ongoing:New Incident

On May 19, 2021, it was reported that the University of North Carolina’s (UNC) Board of Trustees had denied tenure to Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones after she was appointed to be the Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism at UNC’s Hussman School of Journalism and Media, a historically tenured position. The Board had declined to vote on Jones’ tenure after external actors, including a major donor and political figures critical of Hannah-Jones’ work as a journalist, reportedly raised concerns with Board members about the appointment. On June 30, 2021, in the face of widespread media attention, the Board voted to grant Hannah-Jones tenure.

Hannah-Jones is an investigative journalist who has been a staff writer for The New York Times since 2015. She has received a MacArthur Fellowship, a prestigious award granted annually to 20-30 individuals in the United States who possess “originality, insight, and potential” in their chosen field. And in 2020, Hannah-Jones was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Commentary for her work on The 1619 Project, a New York Times longform journalism project examining the consequences of slavery and the contributions of Black Americans in the United States. 

In the summer of 2020, UNC’s journalism school offered Hannah-Jones the Knight Chair and began working with her on the tenure approval process. Knight Chair professorships are endowed by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and designed to bring “top professionals” to classrooms across the United States. All Knight Chairs at UNC have reportedly been approved for tenure upon their appointments. Hannah-Jones’ lawyers reported to Inside Higher Ed that she was promised tenure and was told the position would begin in January 2021. The Journalism School’s Dean, Susan King, stated that Hannah-Jones gained “enthusiastic support” from the School’s faculty and tenure committee.

Beginning in August 2020, however, major donor Walter Hussman Jr, the Journalism School’s namesake, reportedly emailed multiple administrators, including the University’s chancellor and the School’s dean, describing “concerns” he had about Hannah-Jones’ hiring. In one email, Hussman reportedly stated, “I worry about the controversy of tying the UNC journalism school to the 1619 project,” and that “based on her own words, many will conclude she is trying to push an agenda, and they will assume she is manipulating historical facts to support it.” Sources also reported that outside conservative political actors and organizations with close ties to UNC’s Board of Governors, which oversees the UNC system, publicly and privately objected to Hannah-Jones’ appointment. UNC’s Board of Governors is responsible for appointing UNC-Chapel Hill’s 12-member Board of Trustees. 

According to Hannah-Jones’ lawyers, the Board declined, twice, without explanation, to conduct a vote on whether to grant her tenure. In February 2021, the University reportedly offered her a fixed five-year appointment after which she could be considered for tenure, which Hannah-Jones initially accepted. As her lawyers later explained: “Without full knowledge about why she had been denied a vote on her tenure package, Ms. Hannah-Jones entered into the fixed-term agreement on or about February 28, “to minimize the monetary damages she incurred as well as the damage to her reputational standing.”  

On April 26, 2021, UNC’s Hussman School of Journalism and Media announced via their website that Hannah-Jones would be joining the faculty in July 2021 as its Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism. However, on May 19, 2021, NC Policy Watch reported that the Board of Trustees had not offered Hannah-Jones a tenured position, and her legal team set a June 4 deadline for a tenure offer, which was not met. 

On June 22, Hannah-Jones’ legal team issued a letter to UNC stating that she would not take the Knight Chair without tenure. 

On June 30, UNC’s Board of Trustees held a meeting to vote on tenure for Hannah-Jones. The Board voted 9-4 to approve Hannah-Jones for tenure. 

As of this report, Hannah-Jones has not declared whether she will accept the position at UNC.

Scholars at Risk is concerned about the denial of tenure — even if temporary — apparently resulting from outside pressure by external actors. To function properly and safeguard academic freedom, universities must retain institutional autonomy, which UNESCO defines as “that degree of self-governance necessary for effective decision making by institutions of higher education regarding their academic work, standards, management and related activities consistent with systems of public accountability, especially in respect of funding provided by the state, and respect for academic freedom and human rights.” External actors, including government officials, political actors, and donors, have a right to free expression, but should not be permitted to impose undue pressure on universities’ academic decisions, including those relating to the hiring and firing of academic personnel, or curricula. While Scholars at Risk welcomes the eventual decision to hold a vote on Hannah-Jones’ tenure, the encroachment on the hiring process by outside actors raises serious concerns about university autonomy. Universities should take measures to ensure, wherever possible, that such decisions remain free from outside pressure and are driven solely by academic considerations. 

UPDATE: On July 6, 2021, Hannah-Jones formally declined UNC’s offer of tenure and accepted a faculty role at Howard University.