Professional athletes, artists, historians, journalists, political activists and UNC-Chapel Hill alumni across the nation are standing in solidarity with Nikole Hannah-Jones, who is joining UNC’s journalism school this summer but will not have tenure.
Writer Ta-Nehisi Coates and professors and historians Glenda Elizabeth Gilmore and Martha S. Jones wrote a letter in The Root, an African American-oriented online magazine, signed by more than 200 prominent individuals in their industries supporting Hannah-Jones’ tenure and her awarding-winning The 1619 Project.
The signatories include filmmaker Ava DuVernay, author Roxanne Gay, Broadway and film actor Leslie Odom Jr., artist Black Thought and NBA players and philanthropists Dwayne Wade, Carmelo Anthony and Chris Paul. The more than 150 historians who signed represent the “overwhelming sentiment in the profession, not the six historians who wrote to criticize 1619,” Gilmore said in an email.
She said the letter was also sent to the UNC System Board of Governors, the UNC-CH Board of Trustees and UNC-CH administrators.
The piece was written in response to Hannah-Jones’ appointment as the Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism at UNC-CH. Previous Knight Chairs have always been tenured positions at UNC’s Hussman School of Journalism and Media. Hannah-Jones, however, will have a fixed-term “Professor of the Practice” position, with the option of being reviewed for tenure within five years.
“The failure of courage on the part of the Board of Trustees to follow the recommendation of Hannah-Jones’ peers is almost certainly tied to Hannah-Jones’ creation of the 1619 Project,” the letter in The Root said.
Hannah-Jones won the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for Commentary for her work on the 1619 Project, which this group called “a landmark exploration of America’s deep roots in enslavement.” The project has been debated in national, state and local legislatures as an example of an educational program that teaches about systemic racism and slavery.
“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 says. “State institutions across the country are attempting to ban frank and rigorous conversation about our history in the classroom.“
They argue that while “denial of tenure is egregious, it is not an isolated incident” as the same “anti-democratic thinking” has fueled efforts to ban the teaching of The 1619 Project.
“We decry this rising tide of suppression and the threat to academic freedom that it embodies,” they wrote.
The letter ended with a call to action for others: “Here, in 2021, we urge you and one another to resist.”
The UNC-CH trustees have also been criticized through statements by numerous North Carolina and national groups, including:
▪ sitting chairs in 20 other Knight professorships around the country.
▪ the Society of Professional Journalists.
▪ UNC’s Retired Faculty Association.
▪ the UNC Employee Forum.
▪ members of the Hussman School of Journalism and Media Alumni Board.
▪ the North Carolina Local News Workshop at Elon’s University’s School of Communications.
On Monday, the Faculty Executive Committee at UNC passed a resolution calling on the campus Board of Trustees to immediately take up the issue of tenure for Hannah-Jones.
Alumni pay for advocacy ad
A group of UNC-CH alumni, current students and others bought a two-page spread advertisement in The News & Observer in a symbolic move defending Hannah-Jones. The core members of the group were active during their time at UNC pushing to improve the campus for students of color.
Carmen Scott, a UNC-CH alumna who helped organize the effort, said “there’s still power in newspapers” and they wanted to add 1,619 voices to those who have already spoken out about the issue.
“If you open the newspaper and see our names and see our statement then you’ll know what we think,” Scott said. “These decisions get attention and then people have an idea of what the university is and we want to counter that.”
Scott said they don’t know the motive behind the tenure decision, or lack thereof, but it feels political.
“It does feel like they’re kind of joining this chorus against The 1619 project,” Scott said, “and any historical take that doesn’t focus on America being the land of opportunity, but on it being a land of oppression, which is not untrue.”
Scott said Hannah-Jones would only be an asset to the university, particularly to students of color. She said they hope Hannah-Jones doesn’t take another job because of this slight.