Nikole Hannah-Jones Receives Support in Tenure Dispute

More than 200 writers and cultural figures signed a letter opposing the University of North Carolina’s failure to give the Times Magazine correspondent tenure with her position there.


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More than 200 academics, journalists, sports luminaries and other cultural figures published a letter on Tuesday in support of Nikole Hannah-Jones, a correspondent for The New York Times Magazine, who was not offered tenure in her new position at the University of North Carolina by the board of trustees despite a recommendation from its journalism department.

The letter was published on the Black news and culture site The Root as part of a wider cultural debate on how race and slavery are taught in American schools. That dispute often involves the 1619 Project, a series, overseen by Ms. Hannah-Jones, that offered a broad re-examination of the legacy of slavery in America and appeared in The Times Magazine in August 2019. Ms. Hannah-Jones won a Pulitzer Prize in commentary for her introductory essay to the series.

“State institutions across the country are attempting to ban frank and rigorous conversation about our history in the classroom,” the letter said. “Few single works have been threatened with more restrictions than the 1619 Project, a landmark exploration of America’s deep roots in enslavement.”

Signers included the author Ta-Nehisi Coates, the MSNBC anchor Joy Reid, the filmmaker Ava DuVernay, the historian Eric Foner and the National Basketball Association player Carmelo Anthony. The letter cited a “failure of courage on the part of the board of trustees,” saying the decision not to offer tenure was “almost certainly tied to Hannah-Jones’s creation of the 1619 Project.”

During a meeting in January, the university’s trustees took the unusual step of failing to approve a recommendation of tenure for Ms. Hannah-Jones, who this year was named the Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism at the University of North Carolina’s Hussman School of Journalism and Media. She had the backing of the university’s tenure committee, chancellor and journalism faculty. Instead of tenure, Ms. Hannah-Jones accepted a five-year contract, with an option for review.

The board of trustees has not offered a public explanation for its decision. A spokeswoman for the university, Joanne Peters Denny, said in a statement that “details of individual faculty hiring processes are personnel protected information.”

The 1619 Project, which included a podcast series, drew early criticism from five prominent historians, as well as from Republican politicians and conservative commentators. It moved to the center of cultural debate partly because of a 1619 Project curriculum developed by the Pulitzer Center, a series of school lesson plans offered on its website.

The Pulitzer Center says on its site that the curriculum “challenges us to reframe U.S. history by marking the year when the first enslaved Africans arrived on Virginia soil as our nation’s foundational date.” It has been taught in thousands of classrooms in all 50 states, the center said.

Last year, Senator Tom Cotton, Republican of Arkansas, proposed a federal bill to keep the 1619 Project out of schools, an effort that did not gain traction. President Donald J. Trump, who called the series “toxic propaganda,” seemed to counter it by establishing the 1776 Commission, which called for “patriotic education” and defended America’s founding against the idea that it was tainted by slavery. President Biden dissolved the commission on his first day in office.

Republican lawmakers in nearly a dozen states have tried to shape how racism and slavery can be taught in schools, with some bills explicitly targeting the 1619 Project. This month, Tennessee passed a law to withhold funding from schools that teach critical race theory, following a similar law in Idaho. Similar legislative proposals are underway in Texas, New Hampshire and Louisiana.

Tuesday’s letter added that the same “anti-democratic thinking” behind the failure to offer Ms. Hannah-Jones tenure was evident in efforts by the state lawmakers to ban the 1619 Project from schools.

“We, the undersigned, believe this country stands at a crucial moment that will define the democratic expression and exchange of ideas for our own and future generations,” the letter said.

The University of North Carolina’s trustees are overseen by the university system’s board of governors, which is appointed by the Republican-controlled legislature. Ms. Hannah-Jones, who earned a master’s degree from the University of North Carolina in 2003, is scheduled to start in July, while continuing to write for The Times Magazine.

A university spokeswoman said university leaders would respond privately to the letter of support. Ms. Hannah-Jones declined to comment.

“That so many distinguished historians have signed this letter is yet further testament to the impact she has had in sparking an important conversation about American history,” Jake Silverstein, the editor in chief of The Times Magazine, said in a statement. He added that Ms. Hannah-Jones’s work was “in the best tradition of New York Times reporters who have deepened our understanding of the world with rigorous journalism that challenges the status quo and forces readers to think critically.”

Previous Knight Chairs at the University of North Carolina were tenured.

“It is not our place to tell U.N.C. or U.N.C./Hussman who they should appoint or give tenure to,” Alberto Ibarguen, the president of Knight Foundation, which funds the positions, said in a statement last week. “It is, however, clear to us that Hannah-Jones is eminently qualified for the appointment, and we would urge the trustees of the University of North Carolina to reconsider their decision within the time frame of our agreement.”

In an email on Sunday to faculty members that was reviewed by The Times, Susan King, the dean of the Hussman School, suggested that the board could reconsider the tenure recommendation at a future meeting. “So that this won’t linger on,” she wrote, “we’ve asked for a date certain by which a decision about a board vote will be made.”

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