Award-winning journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones announced Tuesday that she has declined a tenure offer from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and will join Howard University instead.
“I decided to decline the offer of tenure. I will not be teaching on the faculty of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. It was a very difficult decision, not a decision I wanted to make,” Hannah-Jones told CBS This Morning.
“Every other chair before me, who also happened to be White, received [the UNC] position with tenure,” she added.
Hannah-Jones will instead be the inaugural Knight Chair in Race and Journalism in the Cathy Hughes School of Communications at Howard University, a historically black college. Prominent writer Ta-Nehisi Coates will join the faculty at Howard’s College of Arts and Sciences. Both appointments are supported by nearly $20 million from the John S. and James L. Knight, John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur and Ford Foundations, along with an anonymous donor.
“Howard University is the right university at the right moment to receive an endowment to establish a chair in Race and Journalism,” Knight Foundation President Alberto Ibarguen said in a statement.
“At a time when digital, television, radio and newspaper newsrooms are scrambling to hire journalists who reflect the communities they cover, Howard is ideally positioned to train the next generation of Black journalists,” he added.
This is the first new Knight chair established in more than a decade. There are now 26 endowed chairs and professors of journalism at 23 schools, including Yale University, Arizona State University and the University of Missouri, among others.
Hannah-Jones, a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grantee and Pulitzer Prize winner whose best-known work reexamines how slavery shaped the United States’ founding, was set to join UNC’s Hussman School of Journalism and Media as its Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism. However, the New York Times Magazine correspondent was not offered tenure for the position, breaking years of precedent.
Hannah-Jones, a UNC graduate, said in a lengthy statement that she was “crushed” by the UNC board of trustees’ initial decision to offer her a five-year contract and delay tenure.
“By that time, I had invested months in the process. I had secured an apartment in North Carolina so that I would be ready to teach that January. My editors at The New York Times had already supplied quotes for the press release of the big announcement. I did not want to face the humiliation of letting everyone know that I would be the first Knight Chair at the university to be denied tenure,” Hannah-Jones wrote.
The UNC board of trustees voted 9-4 last week to extend an offer of tenure to Hannah-Jones. Her lawyers have said the initial offer reflected “race and sex discrimination and retaliation” as well as “viewpoint discrimination” in violation of state and federal laws. The latter was a reference to Hannah-Jones’ work on the “1619 Project,” a ground-breaking series of essays, poems, graphics and visual art pieces she led at The New York Times Magazine that examined the arrival of the first enslaved Africans to the United States more than 400 years ago.
The UNC board’s deferment of Hannah-Jones’ tenure followed concerns from a university mega-donor for whom the journalism school is named, newspaper magnate Walter Hussman. He has said publicly that he was troubled by parts of the “1619 Project.”
“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. Nor can I work at an institution whose leadership permitted this conduct and has done nothing to disavow it,” Hannah-Jones said in her statement.
Hannah-Jones thanked her advocates, her legal team at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and teachers and students at UNC who have defended her, including those on the committee that recommended the board offer her tenure. Some faculty have said that the school’s handling of the personnel matter could affect the school’s ability to recruit and retain top educators.
Hannah-Jones’ “1619 Project” is also at the center of a newly revived debate about what can be taught about race and slavery in public classrooms, whether at colleges or in elementary schools. As of last week, at least 26 states have moved to restrict the teaching of critical race theory, including some that invoked Hannah-Jones’ “1619 Project” and its related curricula by name.