Nikole Hannah-Jones, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist whose tenure vote was deferred by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Board of Trustees, is giving the university until Friday to reconsider her case. NC Policy Watch, which last month broke the news of the board’s deferral, subsequently reported that the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and two other law firms told the university it needs to honor its initial offer of a chaired faculty appointment with tenure to Hannah-Jones or face litigation.
Amid public pressure, the board has said it needed more time to consider Hannah-Jones’s tenure case, suggesting it was because she comes from a nonacademic background. It’s widely suspected that Hannah-Jones was actually effectively denied tenure, despite strong faculty backing and an impressive résumé, because her reporting challenges conventional narratives about the nation’s history, especially with respect to race. Hannah-Jones is also Black, and her supporters point out that the previous appointees to the position she’s scheduled to take in July, who were white, were granted tenure without delay.
Meanwhile, The Assembly reported that UNC megadonor and Arkansas Democrat-Gazette publisher Walter Hussman Jr., after whom UNC’s Hussman School of Journalism and Media is named, opposed Hannah-Jones’s appointment. The website obtained emails from Hussman to UNC chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz and at least one board member, among other campus officials.
“I worry about the controversy of tying the UNC journalism school to the 1619 project,” Hussman reportedly wrote in a December message, referencing Hannah-Jones’s award-winning project on the role of slavery in U.S. history. “I find myself more in agreement with Pulitzer prize winning historians like James McPherson and Gordon Wood than I do Nikole Hannah-Jones.” The board would have received this email before members decided to table her tenure vote.
In a sentiment that is now ironic, given how Hannah-Jones’s tenure denial has inflamed faculty, student and alumni passions, Hussman also wrote that he feared that the “possible and needless controversy” of Hannah-Jones’s appointment would “overshadow” the journalism school’s mission in support of truth and objectivity.
In another email, which observers have said highlights the racial dynamics at play in Hannah-Jones’s tenure case, Hussman took issue with her “1619 Project” assertion that Black Americans “fought back alone” for the most part during the civil rights movement. “Long before Nikole Hannah Jones won her Pulitzer Prize,” Hussman reportedly wrote to UNC officials, “courageous white southerners risking their lives standing up for the rights of blacks were winning Pulitzer prizes, too.”