What Really Happened With Nikole Hannah-Jones

By: Alexander Yalcin

Carolina Review is a conservative and libertarian journal. That means we are open about our ideological perspective. However, we are also journalists, in that we do not intend our ideology to occlude or distort the truth. Over the course of the PR nightmare that was the near hiring of Nikole Hannah-Jones, various sources have presented conflicting and fallacious accounts of what happened, leading to a distorted perception of events among many. Without delving much into commentary, this article aims to rectify any misconceptions about the attempted hiring of Nikole Hannah-Jones by presenting a factual and objective narrative. 

Prior to researching for this article, my understanding of the Hannah-Jones hiring debacle was based on headlines and hearsay, yet shared by many of my friends. Here is the rough story: Hannah-Jones was offered tenure and a position as Knight Chair of the Hussman School of Journalism at UNC. After the eponymous Walter Hussman Jr. (and donor of $25 million) made threats or at least publicly rebuked the hiring decision, the Board of Trustees (BOT) overturned the decision to grant her tenure based on his input as well as the members’ political dispositions. Rightfully indignant at her treatment and UNC’s lack of resolve, Hannah-Jones then decided to reject her untenured offer and instead accept an offer at Howard. If not outright false, this narrative is heavily misleading. 

According to the North State Journal (NSJ), discussions to make Hannah-Jones a UNC faculty member began as early as 2019. Susan King, the dean of the Hussman School, confirms this, adding that she first spoke with Hannah-Jones in 2017. It is important to note these discussions began prior to the publication of the 1619 Project, which accounts for much of the controversy surrounding Hannah-Jones. 

Despite this controversy, Nikole Hannah-Jones received an offer from UNC on Feb. 26th, 2021, and she accepted two days later. Published by the NSJ, the offer letter clearly states that she would be accepting a five-year position as Knight Chair, during or at the end of which she would be considered for tenure. In other words, Hannah-Jones never received a tenure offer in any official capacity. According to UNC trustee Charles Duckett, the misunderstanding stems from King unofficially promising Hannah-Jones tenure. Also according to Duckett, the BOT was not made aware of the offer until after it was sent to Hannah-Jones.

On April 26th, the Hussman school announced from its own website that Nikole Hannah-Jones had been hired, while other sources including the Martin center acknowledged the hire but stated it was unclear whether this position was tenure track. While it is difficult to discern at which moment the widespread national coverage began, Susan King’s comments in the following weeks were perhaps one of the catalysts in this becoming a matter of national controversy. Referring to Hannah-Jones’s untenured hiring, King said, “It’s disappointing and it’s not what we wanted and I am afraid it will have a chilling effect” (NC Policy Watch). 

A May 27th article from the Carolina Alumni Review perhaps epitomizes the confusion and misinformation surrounding the Hannah-Jones’s tenure approval process. The article, titled “Trustees Accept Resubmission of Hannah-Jones Tenure Bid”, first alleges the Board of Trustees “refus[ed] to Grant Hannah-Jones tenure in a process that began last summer.” Also according to same article, when Hannah-Jones’s name was brought up, Duckett questioned the provost and asked for more time before the BOT considered her tenure application. Duckett said he had not received Hannah-Jones’s tenure materials until the week of the May 20th Board of Trustees meeting, which was disrupted by protestors.

Faculty Chair Mimi Chapman attempted to cast doubt on Duckett’s comments by asking, “If her name had never gone over, then Chair Duckett, how would he know to ask the question?” The obvious reconciliation here is that while the provost never sent an official recommendation, her name was brought up in private.

At this point, the Board of Trustees had never even considered Hannah-Jones’s application for tenure, let alone denied it. Yet, an Associated Press headline from May 19th reads, “Tenure Offer Revoked From Slavery Project Journalist.” Then on May 27th, Hannah-Jones threatened to sue the University for its “adverse actions against [her].” Her allegation correctly states, “the Board of Trustees’ fail[ed] to consider and approve my application for tenure—despite the recommendation of the faculty, dean, provost and chancellor,” although this was only true for the time being. 

On June 23rd, Student Body President and member of the BOT Lamar Richards petitioned for a special meeting of the board to re-discuss the tenure of Nikole Hannah-Jones. Five days later, it was announced that this meeting would occur, and on June 30th, the BOT gathered and voted to grant Hannah-Jones tenure. This was the first and only vote the Board of Trustees took regarding the tenure of Hannah-Jones. 

Yet, despite having accepted her 5-year appointment as Knight Chair, and despite having now received the guarantee of tenure, on July 6th, Hannah-Jones declined the offer and instead chose to accept a position at Howard University. 

It is fair to acknowledge that politics were likely involved in certain board members’ decisions. As Duckett states regarding the vote for tenure, “Some people voted no and I understand it, but it was because of political beliefs.” It is also fair to acknowledge that there may have been some degree of intentional stalling at certain points in the tenure approval process. However, there were also legitimate concerns regarding Hannah-Jones’s tenure approval, namely her lack of a PhD (which alone is not always disqualifying) and allegations of journalism that prioritized political influence over historical accuracy.

Regardless of whether Hannah-Jones should have been offered tenure, the dominant narrative painted UNC and the Board of Trustees as villains, first granting then reneging on its tenure offer. If anything, the opposite is true: Hannah-Jones first accepted, then reneged on a five-year contract, even after the media frenzy led to her coveted tenure offer. 

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