Pressure Builds on University of North Carolina to Offer Tenured Position to "1619 Project" Founder Nikole Hannah-Jones

Photo by Evan Agostini/Invision/AP, File

The attorneys for Nikole Hannah-Jones had given the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill until June 4 to make her an offer of a tenured position as the Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism at UNC.  The five prior recipients of this position were all offered tenure at the time they were named, but in a surprising move at the time, Hannah-Jones was offered a five-year term as a faculty member.

Last week I wrote this story about leaked emails showing that the largest single benefactor of the Hussman School of Journalism at UNC, Walter Hussman Jr., publisher of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazzette, had expressed behind the scenes his displeasure with the school’s selection of Hannah-Jones for the position. The School of Journalism was named for Hussman after he made a gift to the University — his alma mater — of $25 million. But Hussman is not just an ordinary rich guy in the media business; Hussman heads a family media company that has been publishing newspapers for 110 years, and he has some specific and direct views on the role of reporters and the press that are not that welcome in modern media circles:

Hussman … is an evangelist of old-school objectivity. “Impartiality means reporting, editing, and delivering the news honestly, fairly, objectively, and without personal opinion or bias,” says the opening line of his statement of core values.

Hussman did not think the “1619 Project” headed by Hannah-Jones met that standard. In fact, he thought it was ahistorical and pushed an agenda under the guise of journalism.

“I worry about the controversy of tying the UNC journalism school to the 1619 project,” Hussman wrote in a late December email to King, copying in Guskiewicz and Routh. “I find myself more in agreement with Pulitzer prize winning historians like James McPherson and Gordon Wood than I do Nikole Hannah-Jones.

“These historians appear to me to be pushing to find the true historical facts. 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. If asked about it, I will have to be honest in saying I agree with the historians.”

Not widely covered by the media has been the fact that the effort to name Hannah-Jones to a tenured position was renewed by the faculty committee which resubmitted her for tenure to the School’s Board of Trustees.

That was the reason why emails from Hussman to various officials at UNC were leaked to the press — to make it clear that Hannah-Jones had been targeted by Hussman for the purpose of denying her tenure, regardless of his motives.

As the Friday deadline approached, the “usual suspects” began to appear in the press demanding that Hannah-Jones be given the tenured position that she had been recommended for — and racism was the only thing standing in her way.  From USA Today:

A group of 38 faculty members at UNC’s Hussman School of Journalism and Media signed a statement Friday again condemning the board for its decision.

“It seems apparent that the UNC Board of Trustees has again failed to review Nikole Hannah-Jones’s dossier for appointment as the Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism with tenure, despite affirmation at all previous levels of rigorous review,” the faculty wrote, adding, “The fact that the Board’s inaction might have resulted from donor influence is especially alarming.”

Last Saturday, the NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund, Inc. sent a letter to UNC threatening a federal lawsuit if the school did not grant tenure by Friday, according to online outlet NC Policy Watch.

A spokesperson for UNC-Chapel Hill said in a statement Friday the university “responded to a letter from the NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund, Inc. regarding Nikole Hannah-Jones’ employment.”

“We look forward to continued dialogue with her counsel,” spokesperson Joel Curran said.

Just so there is no mistaking the point of view of the author of the USA Today story, it includes this “fact”:

In April, Hannah-Jones was offered a five-year teaching contract as the Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism at UNC, spurring outrage from supporters amid speculation the board received pressure from conservatives to not grant tenure. Knight chairs historically have been hired with tenure.

The 13-member Board of Trustees is composed of four people appointed by the state’s Republican-majority General Assembly, eight people elected by the Board of Governors – who are appointed by the General Assembly – and the president of student government. Ten are white men.

See, it is not possible that the controversy over granting Hannah-Jones tenure — a lifetime teaching position at the School of Journalism — is about whether her “reporting” in producing the “1619 Project” began with a point of view based on ahistorical analysis. It does not matter that those who support the School of Journalism with gifts and contributions find such “reporting” to be antithetical to actual journalistic standards of objectivity and neutrality that should be taught by a School of Journalism.

All that matters is that Hannah-Jones is a Black woman, and 10 of 13 members of the UNC Board of Trustees are white men.

Give her what she demands — regardless of the objections and criticisms of her work — or you’re just a bunch of southern white racist bigoted crackers.

Go write her a check for her troubles, and send another one to Al Sharpton just because.