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Nikole Hannah-Jones declines UNC job after tenure controversy

▶ Watch Video: Journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones on turning down UNC role following tenure controversy

Pulitizer Prize-winning investigative journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones announced Tuesday that she has declined a tenured professorship at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She made the announcement exclusively on “CBS This Morning” following weeks of controversy surrounding her job status at the university. 

“I’ve decided to decline the offer of tenure. I will not be teaching on the faculty of the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill. It was a very difficult decision. Not a decision I wanted to make,” Hannah-Jones told “CBS This Morning” co-host Gayle King.

Hannah-Jones was scheduled to teach two courses at UNC this fall. She told “CBS This Morning” co-host Gayle King she will instead be taking a position as the inaugural Knight Chair in Race and Reporting at Howard University. 

She helped secure $15 million dollars in funding for the program which according to an eight-page statement released by Hannah Jones, will focus on training aspiring journalists at Howard to report and cover challenges in democracy “with a clarity, skepticism, rigor and historical dexterity that is too often missing from today’s journalism.” 

UNC announced in April that it would offer Hannah-Jones a position as the Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism in July with a five-year contract. She was the first Black person to hold the prestigious faculty position and the only person to be appointed without tenure. 

“This was a position that since the 1980’s came with tenure. The Knight Chairs are designed for professional journalists who when working in the field to come into academia and every other chair before me who also happened to be White received that position with tenure… I went through the tenure process and I received the unanimous approval of the faculty to be granted tenure,” Hannah-Jones said. “To be denied it and to only have that vote occur on the last possible day, at the last possible moment, after threat of legal action, after weeks of protest, after it became a national scandal, it’s just not something that I want anymore.”

There were earlier opportunities for the UNC Board of Trustees to vote on whether to give Hannah-Jones tenure before last week and Hannah-Jones says she never got a full explanation as to why her application was not taken up earlier.

“To this day, neither the chancellor or the provost or anyone on the board of trustees has ever told me why my tenure was not taken up in November, why it was not taken up in January and even the public statements about needing more information about my credentials, they voted without ever asking me or receiving any additional information than what they had in November,” Hannah-Jones stated.

At one point, Hannah-Jones considered the five-year offer without tenure that UNC offered but changed her mind.

“I accepted it after going through months and months of the tenure process. This is my Alma mater. I love the university. The university had given me a lot and I wanted to give it back. It was embarrassing to be the first person to be denied tenure,” she said. “It was embarrassing and I didn’t want this to become a public scandal. I didn’t want to drag my university through the pages of newspapers because I was the first and only Black person in that position to be denied tenure so I was willing to accept it.”

She said she believes she did not initially get tenure due to concerns from university members about her work on The 1619 Project, a collection of writings published by The New York Times Magazine that re-examines the legacy of slavery in America. Hannah-Jones has faced critical backlash in the past from conservatives, including former President Donald Trump. She told King that unrelated to The 1619 Project, the board had no other reason to not initially grant her tenure application. 

“So it’s pretty clear that my tenure was not taken up because of political opposition because of discriminatory views against viewpoint and I believe my race and my gender,” Hannah-Jones said.

Thousands of UNC faculty, alumni, and students spoke out in support of Hannah-Jones, and many public figures praised her work, while criticizing the university’s actions. Hannah-Jones earned a master’s degree from UNC in 2003. She had previously said she would not join the faculty, unless she was granted tenure.

UNC trustees voted 9-4 to accept Hannah-Jones’ tenure application at a special meeting last Thursday.  In a statement after the vote, R. Gene Davis Jr., vice-chair of the board and leader of Wednesday’s meeting, said: “Let me be perfectly clear. Our motto is Lux et Libertas, light and liberty. We remain committed to being a light shining brightly on the hill. We embrace and endorse academic freedom, open and rigorous debate and scholarly inquiry, constructive disagreement, all of which are grounded in the virtue of listening to each other.”

Hannah-Jones told “CBS This Morning” that the back and forth between UNC and the treatment of student protestors who attended the closed sessions helped affirm her decision to not go to UNC, despite those who say she should stay at the predominantly White university to help students understand the work that she does.

The experience, according to her, also helped her solidify her decision to work at a historically Black institution. “Since the second grade, when I started being bussed into White schools, I’ve spent my entire life proving that I belonged in elite White spaces that were not built for Black people and … I decided I didn’t want to do that anymore. That Black professionals should feel free and actually perhaps an obligation to go to our own institutions and bring our talent and resources to our own institutions and help to build them up as well,
she said.

She continued, “This is not my fight. I fought the battle I wanted to fight. Which is I deserve to be treated equally and have a vote on my tenure. I won that battle. But it’s not my job to heal the University of North Carolina. That’s the job of the people in power who created the situation in the first place.”

Hannah-Jones said she has not heard from the provost and chancellor since the tenure decision was made. She told King that although this was a difficult decision to make, she looks forward to her time at Howard University.

“One of my few regrets in life is that I didn’t go to Howard as an undergraduate and I have long wanted to be a part of the Howard family. It’s just so clear this is the right thing for me to do at this moment,” she said. 

Following the exclusive reveal, CBS News reached out to UNC for comment about Hannah-Jones’ decision. At this time UNC has not commented. In a statement, Susan King, the dean of the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media said she is “disappointed that Hannah-Jones will not be joining the school this summer” but her new opportunity at Howard University “offers her the chance to invest in students and great journalism.”

Faculty of UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media also put a statement online in which they wrote “While disappointed, we are not surprised. We support Ms. Hannah-Jones’s choice. The appalling treatment of one of our nation’s most-decorated journalists by her own alma mater was humiliating, inappropriate, and unjust… We will be frank: It was racist.”



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