The narrative of the Nikole Hannah-Jones saga that has engulfed the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has been pretty straightforward: Evil Republicans on the Board of Trustees unexpectedly deny the fundamental academic right of tenure to a black female journalist because of politics and racism.
The reality is a lot more complicated.
Reasonable people can disagree about whether the UNC Board of Trustees handled the matter properly. Reasonable people can even debate whether public universities should offer tenure at all.
But the debate over Nikole Hannah-Jones’s application for tenure has been anything but reasonable. If you look closely at the timeline of events, you’ll find that the entire debacle was driven more by a media and faculty hungry to drive a wedge — and an agenda. And you’ll find that Nikole Hannah-Jones was less than forthcoming about what she knew about the situation, and when.
In a statement during this time, Hannah-Jones said: “I had no desire to bring turmoil or a political firestorm to the university that I love.”
Based on what we know now, this does not seem to be accurate.
The full timeline of events
The following is pieced together from numerous news accounts that have trickled out over the past few months, nearly all of them garnered to spin up the most possible outrage. However, put together, the story they paint doesn’t quite fit the narrative. Here’s what happened, based on the best available information:
1986: UNC hires its first Knight chair, an advertising executive named Robert Lauterborn. These positions are partially funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and intended to bring professionals to the university. Lauterborn would be the first of four Knight chairs to join the faculty and retired in 2008. Knight-Ridder journalist Phil Meyer would be hired in 1993 (also retired in 2008), and former Wall Street Journal and New York Times executive Penny Muse Abernathy would join in 2008 (retired in 2020).
2012: The most recent Knight chair is hired: JoAnn Sciarrino, also an ad executive. She left for the University of Texas at Austin in 2018. Abernathy and Scarrino were offered tenure when hired, according to statements from UNC journalism school faculty and from Knight chairs.
August 2019: The New York Times publishes the 1619 Project, an attempt to reframe American history around slavery. It’s led by Nikole Hannah-Jones, whose column is titled: “Our democracy’s founding ideals were false when they were written. Black Americans have fought to make them true.” She claims that the American Revolution was primarily fought to preserve slavery.
March 11, 2020: After pushback from historians, The New York Times makes substantial changes to the 1619 Project, including removing the assertion that the Revolution was fought to preserve slavery.
May 4, 2020: Nikole Hannah-Jones wins the Pulitzer Prize for Commentary for the 1619 Project.
Summer 2020: UNC begins discussions with Nikole Hannah-Jones about a Knight chair faculty position. UNC gains approval from the Knight Foundation to change its chair position to focus on race and investigative journalism. The funding agreement — created before NHJ is considered – calls for a five-year contract with tenure consideration during that term.
January 2021: UNC Provost Bob Blouin includes NHJ in a slate of candidates to be considered for tenure by the Board of Trustees. At least one trustee had questions about the process and asked to delay her consideration.
February 26: UNC sends NHJ a formal offer letter for a position at the journalism school: A five-year contract that pays $180,000 per year, plus a $100,000 “start-up package” and $9,000 in relocation assistance. She would teach two courses a semester, participate in faculty meetings and produce journalism projects about structural racism. The offer states that the position is not “inherently tenured,” but that she would be considered for tenure by the end of the contract.
February 28: Nikole Hannah-Jones signs the offer.
April 26: UNC announces that NHJ will join the journalism school faculty.
May 19: Liberal publication NC Policy Watch publishes an article claiming that UNC did not offer NHJ tenure due to political pressure from conservatives. The News & Observer, along with the Washington Post, New York Times and other national outlets, quickly publish their own versions of the same narrative.
May 20: UNC students begin a protest of the failure to immediately grant tenure.
May 27: Nikole Hannah-Jones threatens legal action. She states that receiving tenure was a “condition of my employment.”
May 30: The Assembly publishes a piece saying Walter Hussman Jr., the publisher of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette who donated $25 million to have his name affixed to the school of journalism, emailed administrators at UNC warning them of the potential dangers of hiring NHJ.
June 21: Lawyers representing NHJ send a letter to UNC saying NHJ will not join the faculty unless she is granted tenure.
June 30: Trustees approve NHJ’s tenure application by a vote of 9-4.
July 6: Nikole Hannah-Jones announces she will not come to UNC after all, instead deciding to join the faculty at Howard University.
The narrative is wrong
Nobody denies that the last two Knight chairs, Abernathy and Sciarrino, were granted tenure upon their hiring. But nobody has explained why, either.
Tenure is an unusual institution of debatable merit. But in most cases, professors work toward the job security it offers for years, even a decade or more. Tenure is essentially a lifetime appointment. Why would a university grant tenure to somebody before they teach a single class? Put another way, why marry somebody without at least going on a few dates first?
This doubtless was on the minds of the UNC trustees when they first heard Nikole Hannah-Jones’s name floated for tenure. Nine years is a long time, and no one on the Board of Trustees at the time had been in that position the last time a Knight chair was hired. No board should be required to repeat the mistakes a previous board has made.
But set that aside for a moment.
The key moment in the Nikole Hannah-Jones saga is the February offer letter. In this offer, the journalism school dean tells NHJ that the position is not tenured, but she will be considered for tenure at some point during the five-year contract.
She’s given a lavishly generous pay package, which would immediately make her the highest-paid professor in the journalism school – supplanting John Sweeney, who has taught at the school since 1981 and makes $151,954.00 (Abernathy made $175,000 in her last year at the university). That doesn’t include the $100,000 start-up bonus. She would also be able to continue working for The New York Times.
Nikole Hannah-Jones signed the agreement. She set a start date knowing she likely would not have tenure at that date. Receiving tenure was thus not a condition of her employment, as she later stated.
The deal was fine in February. It was fine in April, when the appointment was announced.
It is only when an activist media outlet begins crafting a narrative that a problem arises.
Power and influence
Keep in mind, Nikole Hannah-Jones is not an obscure figure at the whims of university administrators. She is arguably the most influential journalist in the country, more powerful than even the trustees.
If NHJ truly wanted to avoid the spotlight, she could have insisted on tenure before agreeing to join the faculty. The issue had already been raised behind the scenes. She didn’t have to sign the February offer.
Later on, she could have diffused the situation by using her platform to tell people she was satisfied with her contract and trusted the process she agreed to that would ultimately lead to her tenure.
Of course, that’s not what happened.
The most generous way to read the situation is that Nikole Hannah-Jones had no idea why her tenure wasn’t immediately approved. Once she read online that it might have to do with her political views, she felt hurt and decided to demand it. When her situation made national news, she got other offers and decided to take one. You can read NHJ’s full version of events here.
The other way to read it is that she knew her appointment would be controversial and had a good idea why her tenure wasn’t immediately approved. She was satisfied with her salary and knew tenure would eventually be approved should she want it. But once the first story came out, she saw an opportunity to be a victim and stick it to Republicans in North Carolina. So she poured gasoline on the situation at every opportunity and made up her mind that she wouldn’t teach at UNC well in advance.
The truth is likely somewhere in between. But either way, the outrage was manufactured by media and faculty with political interests, to maximum effect. A short delay in an arcane academic benefit was turned into a breathless national controversy, and the left enjoyed every minute of it.
This article first appeared at LongLeaf Politics and is reprinted with permission.