Nikole Hannah-Jones rejects UNC Chapel Hill job despite receiving tenure

Left, in this Wednesday, March 18, 2020, file photo, people remove belongings on campus at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. Right, Nikole Hannah-Jones is interviewed at her home in the Brooklyn borough of New York, Tuesday, July 6, 2021. (AP photos)

CHAPEL HILL — Nikole Hannah-Jones, the writer of the controversial “1619 Project,” turned down a job at UNC Chapel Hill and will instead take a tenured position at Howard University.

Hannah-Jones made the announcement on CBS This Morning that she would join the private HBCU along with author Ta-Nehisi Coates.

One week ago, trustees at UNC Chapel Hill approved tenure for Hannah-Jones on the last day of the previous iteration of the trustee board. The university had previously announced in April that she would join the journalism school despite the factual inaccuracies of the “1619 Project,” pointed out by Walter Hussman Jr. The school named the journalism school after Hussman following a $25 million donation. Hussman had emailed university leaders challenging her work as “highly contentious and highly controversial.”

She called the situation a “a very difficult decision, not a decision I wanted to make.”

But ultimately, she said the university’s treatment led her to instead take the Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism at Howard.

“To be denied it [tenure] to only have that vote occur on the last possible day, at the last possible moment, after threat of legal action, after weeks of protest, after it became a national scandal, it’s just not something that I want anymore,” she said in a statement released by her attorneys at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. “I cannot imagine working at and advancing a school named for a man who lobbied against me, who used his wealth to influence the hires and ideology of the journalism school, who ignored my 20 years of journalism experience, all of my credentials, all of my work, because he believed that a project that centered black Americans equaled the denigration of white Americans.”

“It is my pleasure to welcome to Howard two of today’s most respected and influential journalists,” Howard President Wayne A. I. Frederick said in a news release. “At such a critical time for race relations in our country, it is vital that we understand the role of journalism in steering our national conversation and social progress.”

Their appointments are being supported by nearly $20 million donated by Knight Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Ford Foundation, as well as by an anonymous donor, to support Howard’s continued education of and investment in black journalists, the university said.

Hannah-Jones also cited political interference by conservatives because of her work on the “1619 Project.” Attorneys retained by Hannah-Jones’ said she would not accept the job without tenure, and even cited unspecified concerns about the role of Republican members of the General Assembly.

Those claims were unfounded, said Pat Ryan, deputy chief of staff and communications director to Senate Leader Phil Berger (R-Eden).

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 predicted that 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.

Journalism school dean Susan King said of the decision, “Of course, I’m disappointed that Nikole Hannah-Jones will not be joining the school this summer. But I’m also aware it’s been a long six months for her and for our students.”

Not all UNC-CH students were disappointed, however.

The school’s College Republicans chapter blasted the university’s trustees in a written statement, saying, “The Board of Trustees claims to value ‘open and rigorous debate’ and ‘constructive disagreement,’ but through their actions demonstrated that there is only room for one-sided discussion. This decision [awarded Hannah-Jones tenure] is only one example of the direction higher education is heading — one in which students are losing the diverse exchange of ideas.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.