Dispute over tenure offer for slavery project writer draws attention

In this May 21, 2016, file photo, Nikole Hannah-Jones attends the 75th Annual Peabody Awards Ceremony at Cipriani Wall Street in New York. (Photo by Evan Agostini/Invision/AP, File)

CHAPEL HILL — Investigative writer Nikole Hannah-Jones’ tenure application at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill was not automatically approved by trustees because she didn’t come from a “traditional academic-type background,” and a trustee who vets the lifetime appointments wanted more time to consider her qualifications, university leaders said Thursday.

The trustee who leads the subcommittee that considers tenure applications, Charles Duckett, chose in January to postpone the review of Hannah-Jones’ submission, said Richard Stevens, the chairman of the board of trustees for the Chapel Hill campus. It was never brought before the full board for approval, and instead the writer accepted a five-year appointment to the faculty of the journalism school.

“We’re talking about a lifetime position here, so they’re not entered into lightly,” Stevens told reporters. “And it’s not unusual for a member of the board, or in particular the chair of the committee, to have questions for clarification about background, particularly candidates that don’t come from a traditional academic-type background. In this case, Chair Duckett asked for a little bit of time to be able to do that.”

Hannah-Jones was offered a position as the Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the school announced last month. Hannah-Jones is a writer known for her work on The 1619 Project for The New York Times Magazine.

But some say the school changed its offer from a tenured position to a five-year term as a professor with an option for review at the end of that time.

University spokesperson Joanne Peters Denny declined comment on the situation, saying faculty hiring processes are personnel protected information.

The foundation that endows Hannah-Jones’ position, the Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism, urged the school to grant the tenured position.

Stevens and Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz said Hannah-Jones could be considered for tenure before the end of her current five-year contract.

The controversial 1619 Project is an initiative of The New York Times Magazine that began in August 2019, the 400th anniversary of the beginning of American slavery. The magazine describes the project as one which is designed to reframe the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans “at the very center of our national narrative.”

Materials were developed for schools to use and The Pulitzer Center partnered with the Times to develop 1619 Project lesson plans. However, objections to The 1619 Project have morphed into legislative efforts to prevent its presentation in public schools.