Hannah-Jones rejects North Carolina for Howard after tenure row

Pulitzer-winning journalist, citing embarrassment of UNC controversy, instead joins Ta-Nehisi Coates at top HBCU

July 6, 2021
Howard University interview with Nikole Hannah-Jones
Source: iStock

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones has turned down a belated and apparently grudging approval of tenure from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC) and will instead join another celebrated black author, Ta-Nehisi Coates, at Howard University.

Ms Hannah-Jones, in a carefully planned response to a controversy that gained national attention, visited North Carolina to privately thank supporters at her alma mater, then announced in a CBS News interview she had instead accepted an offer from Howard, one of the nation’s premier historically black institutions.

She acted less than a week after UNC’s board of trustees, under heavy pressure on campus and beyond, ended months of delays and voted to grant her tenure as part of what normally would have been a routine element of her hiring to a five-year position teaching about race and investigative journalism.

Explaining her decision, Ms Hannah-Jones took a tone of regret toward UNC and embrace of Howard, saying the experience helped her understand she wanted a break from proving herself in “elite white spaces”.

“This is not my fight,” she said on CBS, referencing the need for racial understanding still necessary among the university leadership in Chapel Hill. “It’s not my job to heal the University of North Carolina.”

Yet in a separate statement, issued on her behalf by the Legal Defense Fund of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, she offered UNC a series of recommendations, including changing the role of the trustees in faculty governance and setting “an actual commitment, with targets, for recruiting, supporting and retaining black faculty”.

At Howard – one of several institutions that worked to recruit Ms Hannah-Jones as UNC leadership wavered on its own faculty’s attempt to hire her – the moment brought celebration of an opportunity to improve racial understanding in journalism.

Howard said its hiring of Ms Hannah-Jones and Mr Coates – a renowned expert on race and white supremacy who has been a writer in residence at New York University – was being aided by nearly $20 million (£14 million) from three major foundations and an anonymous donor.

“At such a critical time for race relations in our country,” Howard’s president, Wayne Frederick, said. “it is vital that we understand the role of journalism in steering our national conversation and social progress.”

UNC’s School of Journalism and Media decided to hire Ms Hannah-Jones in April, after she won the 2020 Pulitzer for Commentary for her work on the 1619 Project. The project is now used by US school districts nationwide to teach the central role of slavery and black Americans in US history.

But conservatives led by former US president Donald Trump have railed against the 1619 Project, leading the UNC board and university donors to resist the Hannah-Jones hiring.

The board eventually relented on the tenure question, under protests from UNC students and faculty, and other academics and activists beyond the campus. At the time – just one day before her appointment was to begin — Ms Hannah-Jones thanked the protesters and said she would take time to decide on the offer.

In the CBS interview, she said she never wanted the controversy and felt singled out by the UNC board for her race and gender, after decades in which the position she was offered was routinely and consistently accompanied by tenure.

“It was clear that I was credentialled enough to teach 18-year-olds how to do journalism at the University of North Carolina,” she said.

Ms Hannah-Jones also reiterated her love for UNC and for those there who backed her, including the journalism dean, Susan King, “who, in a vacuum of leadership, has exhibited courage, integrity, honesty and a refusal to be bullied even if it cost her”.

She noted, however, that she did not give advance notice of her Howard hiring to the chancellor of UNC-Chapel Hill, Kevin Guskiewicz, saying he never reached out to her after the trustees’ vote.

Dr Guskiewicz, in a statement, said he was disappointed that Ms Hannah-Jones had decided against joining UNC, said the Howard community “will benefit from her knowledge and expertise”, and admitted that UNC has “a great deal of work ahead” to become a more inclusive community.

“New challenges like this present opportunities for us to learn and act,” he said. “We will act, as I know we are up to this challenge.”

In the CBS interview, Ms Hannah-Jones – who earned a bachelor’s degree in history and African American studies from the University of Notre Dame before completing her master’s degree in journalism at UNC – said she regretted not having chosen Howard as an undergraduate.

“I have long wanted to be a part of the Howard family,” she said. “Something great came out of this.”


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