UNC emails show long debate over tenure for Nikole Hannah-Jones, who took job at Howard University instead

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The University of North Carolina Chapel Hill has released hundreds of pages of emails in connection with the controversy of its attempt to bring in 1619 Project writer Nikole Hannah-Jones as a tenured professor.

She was initially offered a multi-year position to become the school’s next Knight Chair in Journalism – an endowed position that has previously included tenure. Once that was revealed, public outcry and threats to walk from Hannah-Jones prompted the school’s board of trustees to vote in favor of granting her tenure. The Pulitzer-winning alumna chose to go teach somewhere else anyway.

The UNC emails, obtained by Fox News, include a range of discussions on various aspects of the saga. As officials were drafting the initial announcement of Hannah-Jones’ hiring, they discussed trying to get a quote about her from Oprah Winfrey.

FILE – In this Tuesday, July 6, 2021, file photo, Nikole Hannah-Jones is interviewed at her home in the Brooklyn borough of New York. Hannah-Jones accepted a faculty position at Howard University amid controversy over whether she would be granted tenure at the University of North Carolina after critics questioned her credentials, specifically her Pulitzer Prize-winning work "The 1619 Project," which traces the country’s history with slavery. (AP Photo/John Minchillo, File 1619 Book cover: Amazon)
(AP Photo/John Minchillo)

Meanwhile, Walter Hussman, a major donor to UNC’s Hussman School of Journalism and Media and a newspaper publisher, raised flags about offering tenure to someone whose cornerstone 1619 Project had been called inaccurate by some historians and skewered by critics.

In an email to David Routh, the school’s vice chancellor for university development and UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz, he said he was concerned about Hannah-Jones’ support for reparations.

“I would like to highlight a few of her statements in this essay which I feel will be quite controversial and divisive,” he wrote, before digging into a June 30, 2020 New York Times article by Hannah-Jones.

Separately, he forwarded a Politico article by a historian who said she had raised flags about the 1619 Project’s opening essay to New York Times fact checkers – only to have them ignored. 

“On August 19 of last year I listened in stunned silence as Nikole Hannah-Jones, a reporter for the New York Times, repeated an idea that I had vigorously argued against with her fact-checker: that the patriots fought the American Revolution in large part to preserve slavery in North America,” wrote the historian, Leslie Harris.

Hussman previously denied trying to pressure the school over Hannah-Jones in an interview with NC Policy Watch, but he had acknowledged sending emails to school leaders about the issue.

Other emails show a debate about granting a tenured position to someone who had no experience teaching and whose name was linked to the 1619 Project.

Chuck Duckett, a member of the board of trustees, wrote an email to Provost Bob Blouin asking to “postpone-remove” a request for Hannah-Jones’ tenure from a board meeting in January.

“Can we remove this for now and take it up at [the board of trustees] meeting in March?” Duckett wrote. “Maybe another accommodation makes more sense for the university and the taxpayer?”

He wrote that the tenure request left his committee with “a lot of questions and feedback.”

“FYI, the reasoning mentions appointment based on creative activity, reaching and service,” he wrote. “What does that mean?”

The files also include alumni statements that were both supportive of and opposed to tenure for the controversial writer.

“I am very proud of UNC today following the news that Hannah-Jones will not be awarded tenure,” reads an email from Erich Jacobs. “I think the decision was courageous…The 1619 Project, for me, fails on every point of academic rigor, and it’s author should in no way represent the university.”

Mark and Connie Meares wrote that the initial denial of tenure left them “both distressed” and argued that even without teaching experience, Hannah-Jones has a number of qualifications.

“Ms. Hannah-Jones is not only a UNC alumna, a Pulitzer winner, a MacArthur Genius recipient, she is also one of the founders of the Ida B. Wells Society of Investigative Reporting, which is now housed within the Hussman School of Journalism,” they added.

Lamar Richards, the student body president and also a trustee, later appealed to Guskiewicz, Blouin and board chair Richard Stevens to grant Hannah-Jones tenure.

FILE – In this May 21, 2016, file photo, Nikole Hannah-Jones attends the 75th Annual Peabody Awards Ceremony at Cipriani Wall Street in New York. (Photo by Evan Agostini/Invision/AP, File)

“The tenure process here at Carolina, similar to most universities across the country, is led by faculty leaders,” he wrote. “They determine who they believe is worthy of having tenure; in this instance, they determined that Nikole was in fact worthy of such a distinction.”

The board eventually voted in June to grant Hannah-Jones, a UNC Alumna, a tenured position, but she took one at Howard University — also endowed by the Knight Foundation.

“I wanted to send a powerful message, or what I hope to be a powerful message, that we’re often treated like we should be lucky that these institutions let us in,” she told the Associated Press after announcing the switch. “But we don’t have to go to those institutions if we don’t want to.”

The New York Times’ 1619 Project “aims to reframe the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of Black Americans at the very center of the United States’ national narrative.” Hannah-Jones is its lead writer. 

At a pair of seminars on the project in Oregon earlier this year, she told students and faculty that the U.S. has failed to live up to its founding ideals, that “what we call American history is really White history,” and that Black Americans are the founding fathers.

Several states, including Florida and Missouri, have included prohibitions on the 1619 Project with bans they’ve implemented on promoting critical race theory in public schools.

For her contributions to the 1619 Project, Hannah-Jones won a Pulitzer Prize for commentary last year. She was awarded the MacArthur Fellowship, also known as a “genius grant,” in 2017.

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