In a few weeks, New York Times reporter Nikole Hannah-Jones will join the faculty of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Hussman School of Journalism and Media, as the Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism. She accepted a five-year contract as a professor of the practice, with the possibility of receiving tenure at a later date.
Previous Knight chairs got tenure right off the bat. Hannah-Jones didn’t. For this difference, university trustees have been accused of racism, sexism, infringing on academic freedom, and engaging in “cancel culture.”
I have strong disagreements with Nikole Hannah-Jones on a wide range of political issues. As both a conservative and a Hussman School alumnus, however, I would defend her if I thought her failure to receive immediate tenure was the product of viewpoint discrimination.
But that’s not what happened, as best I can determine.
As the Raleigh News & Observer has correctly reported — in sharp contrast to the mistaken reporting of other state and national media outlets — UNC did not offer Hannah-Jones a tenured position in April, then revoke the offer after external criticism from the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal (an organization I helped found and for which I serve as vice-chairman).
Rather, back in January, before her potential role at UNC was public knowledge, the provost submitted a package of faculty appointments to the UNC-CH Board of Trustees for approval. Included was a proposal to offer Hannah-Jones a tenured position at Hussman.
Trustee Chuck Duckett, who chairs the relevant board committee, replied with questions about Hannah-Jones. Other tenured appointments were approved. The board never voted on hers one way or the other. Instead, UNC converted its offer into a five-year contract and offered it to Hannah-Jones, who accepted it.
What concerns did Duckett and presumably other trustees have about giving Hannah-Jones immediate tenure? This is a personnel matter about which they are not sharing details, at least not on the record. Board chairman Richard Stevens told the N&O that because tenure is a “lifetime position,” it’s not unusual to have “questions or clarifications about background, particularly candidates that don’t come from a traditional academic-type background.”
Champions of Hannah-Jones allege the Republican-appointed trustees hesitated because they disagreed with her politically. Again, if so that would be problematic. But I don’t buy the allegation. Here’s no news flash at all: most professors who receive tenure at UNC-Chapel Hill are politically left-of-center. If UNC trustees are applying an ideological litmus test, they’re doing a horrible job of it.
What distinguishes Hannah-Jones isn’t her politics. It’s her conduct. The problem isn’t just that her signature 1619 Project contained significant factual errors and indefensible claims. When challenged about them, she dodged, weaved, and personally smeared her critics. She later tried to “memory hole” much of this.
She and the Times also engaged in stealth edits of their work, backing away from key claims while denying they were doing so. For instance, the original version of the 1619 Project stated that it aimed “to reframe the country’s history, understanding 1619 as our true founding, and placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of our national narrative.” Later, after withering criticism, the Times edited the online version to take out the phrase “understanding 1619 as our true founding.”
“I argue that 1619 is our true founding,” Hannah-Jones said in an early tweet. Later, after the edit, she tweeted that the 1619 Project “does not argue that 1619 was our true founding. We know this nation marks its founding at 1776.”
That Hannah-Jones didn’t receive immediate tenure, and will instead be evaluated according to her future classroom performance, is no outrage. It’s a wise precaution that resulted from the UNC Board of Trustees properly exercising its governance responsibilities.
John Hood is a Carolina Journal columnist and author of the new novel Mountain Folk, a historical fantasy set during the American Revolution.