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‘I’m Looking for Answers’: Nikole Hannah-Jones, Who Won Pulitzer Prize for ‘1619 Project’ Commentary, Denied Tenure at UNC After Pushback from Conservatives

Nikole Hannah-Jones, an investigative journalist who won a Pulitzer Prize for her commentary on The New York Times’ 1619 Project has been denied tenure at her alma mater after pushback from conservatives.

The University of North Carolina’s Hussman School of Media and Journalism announced in April that Hannah-Jones would become the newest Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism, a professorship that typically comes with tenure. However, despite approval from faculty and the tenure committee, the MacArthur Fellow was offered a five-year teaching contract instead after the Board of Trustees did not act on the faculty’s recommendation.

While Hannah-Jones did not address the university’s decision directly, she acknowledged on Twitter the support she’d received in the aftermath of the announcement.

Hannah-Jones will begin her five-year term on July 1 as a professor of the practice and will have the opportunity to be reviewed for tenure once the term ends.

The 1619 Project is a long-form journalism project developed by Hannah-Jones and “aims to reframe the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of Black Americans at the very center of the United States’ national narrative.” The project’s name is derived from the year in which Africans first arrived in Virginia via slave ships. Hannah-Jones penned the introductory essay, which won the 2020 Pulitzer for commentary.

Hannah-Jones and other writers, photographers and editors for The New York Times contributed to the project, which sparked controversy and backlash from conservatives.

Nikole Hannah-Jones, an investigative journalist who won a Pulitzer Prize for her commentary on The New York Times’ 1619 Project has been denied tenure at her alma mater after pushback from conservatives. (Photo: CBS YouTube screenshot)

Former President Donald Trump slammed the project at a White House history conference last year, and promised to introduce a “1776 commission” to reinstate “patriotism” in American classrooms.

“The left has warped, distorted, and defiled the American story with deceptions, falsehoods, and lies.  There is no better example than the New York Times’ totally discredited 1619 Project,” Trump said. “This project rewrites American history to teach our children that we were founded on the principle of oppression, not freedom.”

Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell urged the project’s removal from school curricula in a letter sent to Education Secretary Miguel Cardona earlier this year, saying it strives to reorient history programs “away from their intended purposes toward a politicized and divisive agenda.” 

According to NC Policy Watch, the Board of Trustees at the university had received phone calls both in support of and in opposition to their April announcement about hiring Hannah-Jones.

The decision surprised faculty members, more than a dozen of whom have signed a letter demanding “explanations from the university’s leadership at all levels” and calling for Hannah-Jones to receive tenure.

“This failure is especially disheartening because it occurred despite the support for Hannah-Jones’s appointment as a full professor with tenure by the Hussman Dean, Hussman faculty, and university,” the letter, published on Wednesday, May 19, said. “Hannah-Jones’s 20-plus year distinguished record in the field of journalism surpasses expectations for a tenured position.” 

“It’s disappointing, it’s not what we wanted and I am afraid it will have a chilling effect,” Susan King, dean of UNC Hussman, told NC Policy Watch.

She said she’s not sure the Board of Trustees has denied tenure to someone previously approved by faculty and the tenure committee.

Every Knight Chair professor who has ever taught at the flagship Chapel Hill campus has received tenure.

A member of the board who wanted to remain anonymous told NC Policy Watch that the board’s decision came down to politics.

“This is a very political thing,” the trustee said. “The university and the board of trustees and the Board of Governors and the legislature have all been getting pressure since this thing was first announced last month. There have been people writing letters and making calls, for and against. But I will leave it to you which is carrying more weight.”

The mostly Republican UNC Board of Governors has been critical of Hannah-Jones’ work in the past.

On Thursday, protesters gathered at the campus to protest the board’s decision. UNC associate professor Tori Ekstrand was present for the demonstration.

“We’re frustrated and stunned,” Ekstrand said. “I think for myself. I’m looking for answers.”

The Board of Trustees has not publicly addressed why it did not act on the tenure recommendation from faculty.

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