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Nikole Hannah-Jones declines UNC’s tenure offer, accepts position at Howard University


In what many are calling a “woman boss” move, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones has told the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to take their tenure offer and shove it. She has instead accepted a faculty position at historical Howard University, in Washington, D.C. Hannah-Jones made the announcement last week that she decided to decline the offer of tenure” from her alma mater UNC. “It was a difficult decision, not a decision I wanted to make,” Hannah-Jones said. “Instead, I’m going to be the inaugural Knight Chair in Race and Journalism at Howard University.” 

Hannah-Jones is her own boss, having worked to become a renowned journalist and the winner of a MacArthur Fellowship, known as a “genius grant.” Many are saying that her decision reflects the fact that Hannah-Jones will not allow anyone to minimize her professional achievements or force her to submit to their definitions of who she is or how her future endeavors will be defined.

Hannah-Jones told Policy Watch in an interview that the political quagmire in the UNC System and lack of transparency and support from school leadership ultimately made it inevitable. When Policy Watch first broke the story of the UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees denying Hannah-Jones a vote on tenure, faculty, staff, students, and alumni rallied around her. Major funding partners publicly called on the school to grant her tenure. The Knight Foundation, which endows the professorship for which Hannah-Jones was recruited, also pushed for the school to hire her with tenure — a status that has been afforded to all previous Knight Chairs at the school.

Hannah-Jones’ announcement came weeks after UNC trustees initially denied tenure in Hannah-Jones’ appointment as a professor at the Hussman School of Journalism and Media after conservatives condemned her hiring. Instead, the university offered her a five-year fixed term with eligibility for tenure review at the end. That decision by the school was widely criticized by students and others and sparked protests at the state’s flagship university. Hannah-Jones’ legal team said she would not join the faculty “without the protection and security of tenure.” University trustees finally voted last Wednesday 9-4 to approve tenure for Hannah-Jones. 

She explained Tuesday why she decided to reject UNC’s offer. “Every other chair before me, who also happened to be white, received that position with tenure,” she said. “And so, 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 protests, after it became a national scandal — it’s just not something that I want anymore.”

She also said she could not work at a journalism school named for Walter Hussman Jr., a newspaper publisher whom she described as “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.”

Hannah-Jones will join acclaimed writer Ta-Nehisi Coates as a faculty member at the Howard University. While Coates becomes a faculty member at the flagship College of Arts and Sciences and Hannah-Jones will be a tenured faculty member of the Cathy Hughes School of Communications. She will also be the founder of the Center for Journalism and Democracy, which will help train and equip aspiring journalists with “investigative skills and historical and analytical expertise needed to cover the crisis our democracy is facing,” the school said. 

In a statement on Tuesday, Howard University President Wayne A.I. Frederick said he was honored to have Hannah-Jones and Coates, “Two of today’s most respected and influential journalists,” join the university’s faculty. “At such a critical time for race relations in our country, it is vital that we understand the role of journalism in steering our national conversation and social progress,” Frederick said. “Not only must our newsrooms reflect the communities where they are reporting, but we need to infuse the profession with diverse talent.”

Hannah-Jones and Coates bring to Howard $20 million that foundations and individuals have already contributed to their positions and the new center.

Hannah-Jones won the Pulitzer last year for her work on The New York Times Magazine’s 1619 Project, which examines the consequences of slavery in the United States. That project has been attacked by some conservative critics, and she has faced staunch criticism since its release in 2019.

The 1619 Project is named after the year in which a ship carrying 20 to 30 enslaved Africans arrived in the then-British colony of Virginia. It holds that America was truly founded in 1619, when the first enslaved people were brought to the Colonies, not in 1776.

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