Legislators may feature in ‘1619 Project’ writer’s UNC-tenure lawsuit

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)

RALEIGH — Nikole Hannah-Jones, the writer behind the controversial ‘1619 Project’ and a recent hire at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s journalism school, is said to be considering a lawsuit against UNC-CH and the Board of Trustees.

The Raleigh News & Observer reported the details last month with a comments from Hannah-Jones, saying she retained legal counsel to “ensure the academic and journalistic freedom of black writers is protected to the full extent of the law and to seek redress for the University of North Carolina’s adverse actions against me,” in an emailed statement.

The Knight Foundation, which funds the role at the university, said in a statement that the position began as a professorship in 1984 to teach advertising and subsequently converted to the Knight Chair in Digital Advertising and Marketing, and then to the Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Reporting. The statement said it was the university’s idea to change the area of focus and hire Hannah-Jones.

Some media outlets have reported that tenure for the position was denied or revoked; however, the offer of tenure is a decision made by the UNC-CH Board of Trustees — not the journalism school.

Charles Duckett, a member of the Board of Trustees, confirmed to The Associated Press that a resubmitted offer with tenure has been sent. He said he received the resubmission on May 25 from the university’s Appointments, Personnel and Tenure Committee, which is made up of tenured professors.

The new offer could be voted on in late June or July, after Hannah-Jones is reportedly set to start at the new job.

Faculty and student leaders at the university demanded that trustees officially reconsider tenure for Hannah-Jones. A letter signed by various professional athletes, writers and academics assailed the university, saying the trustees “failed to uphold the first order values of academic freedom and the free exchange of ideas.”

Republican legislators and other conservatives have been the target of criticism by Hannah-Jones and her supporters.

According to Pat Ryan, deputy chief of staff and communications director for Senate Leader Phil Berger (R-Eden), all 170 legislators received a letter to preserve any related communications. Ryan said that the legislature has no role in the faculty hiring decisions at UNC System schools or the terms by which faculty are hired.

“A short walk around the UNC-Chapel Hill campus should convince anybody that the Republican-led legislature doesn’t decide who teaches there,” Ryan said via email to NSJ.

He also added attacking Republican legislators without evidence would get them some more media coverage, and “They were right.” He said some reporters fell for an evidence-free theory about some sort of nefarious conduct by legislators.

“Ms. Hannah-Jones has a lengthy history of attacking critics and falsely claiming she never said things that were in fact published under her own name. With trust in media at record lows, who teaches the next generation of journalists is a critically important question, and it’s up to the university to answer it,” Ryan said.