CHAPEL HILL — According to former UNC Chapel Hill trustee Charles Duckett, what actually happened behind the scenes was a much different process than what played out publicly in the controversy surrounding the journalism school’s attempted hiring of Nikole Hannah-Jones.
After weeks of uncertainty from a routine board meeting to a final emergency closed-session discussion, the trustees approved tenure for the writer — only to see her opt for a position at Howard University in Washington, D.C., days later.
Duckett told NSJ in an interview earlier this month that the journalism school’s dean, Susan King, had recruited Hannah-Jones “two years ago,” pre-dating the publication of her controversial “1619 Project.”
He says the Knight Foundation was also involved in the recruitment process in the fall of 2020.
“When this process started, I wrote an email in January [which Duckett says is pending release] saying ‘There’s going to be a lot of questions here, and I don’t want this to come up [without prior knowledge],’” Duckett says. “I wanted some questions answered and asked for a delay, meaning it would come up in March.”
King says she first met Hannah-Jones in 2017 and confirmed discussions began in 2019 to bring the New York Times Magazine writer to campus.
King told NSJ on July 20, “I talked to her when she spoke to alumni and she became a distinguished alum. We met at a conference of the Carnegie Knight deans. This was a relationship with an important alum, and she is one.”
She added that discussions began in the spring of 2019 to move the Ida Bae Wells Society to UNC Chapel Hill, then, during a vacation in 2019, the opportunity to bring Hannah-Jones to the university emerged.
“In the summer of 2019, the week of July 4, the person we recruited for Knight Chair in Advertising turned the job down. In further discussions, the Knight Foundation said they weren’t interested in advertising anymore. They were interested in local news, start-ups, serving communities and democracy,” said King. “They were also interested in diversity and journalists of color, and investigative journalism.”
According to King, Hannah-Jones was interested in giving back to the university.
“She wanted to be an encouraging voice especially to students of color,” said King, adding, “Then, the 1619 Project came out.”
Duckett is emphatic that Hannah-Jones’ political views were irrelevant to whether she should be awarded tenure.
“I want to be clear about something: it’s not my job as a trustee to tell the university who or who not to hire. We are an advisory board, and we don’t run the university,” he says.
Duckett says a vote as a trustee is not a vote on whether you like or agree with the person; it is about the policy of tenure and whether the process is followed.
King says during the recruitment period she talked to the school’s faculty and they agreed that she was someone they wanted to come in with tenure.
“There was no difference in Nikole’s process and other processes,” she said.
Process was mentioned repeatedly by both Duckett and King. For Duckett, it exposed what he says are flaws within university policy.
“I don’t understand why tenure vote comes to the board, honestly. If the policy is followed, it doesn’t matter [what the trustees say]. You can’t change policy and I don’t think someone should come to the university who has never taught and should be given tenure; but that’s my personal belief,” he says. He also added that his father was a tenured professor of medicine at Wake Forest and East Carolina University.
“When I first had questions, I didn’t go public and said we’d take it up in March — that’s not a big delay when someone’s been recruited for two-plus years,” said Duckett.
Duckett said no one from the university administration answered his subsequent questions, which he says centered on the changes in the position’s role, the nature of an outside hire, and others he said he could not discuss at the time due to confidentiality.
On Feb. 26, an offer letter was sent to Hannah-Jones. She accepted on Feb. 28.
Duckett says the trustees were unaware of the contract.
Following a public-records request, North State Journal received a copy of the letter, including the terms for employment.
The offer letter reads:
I am pleased to offer you appointment as the Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism and Professor of the Practice in the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media. This is a five-year fixed-term faculty appointment effective July 1, 2021 until June 30, 2026. As discussed, we expect that you will be considered for a tenured appointment during or at the conclusion of the term of this appointment. Such consideration will be made consistent with applicable University and School policies and procedures. If approved during the term of this appointment, you would be offered a new, tenured appointment and this appointment would terminate.
The letter also includes five responsibilities she was to have, which were: teach two courses each semester; research and produce mainstream journalism projects to elevate the national conversation about structural racism and create opportunities for dialogue that will enhance the experience of our students; participate in faculty meetings and engage in key in initiatives within the school; serve on appropriate school committees to support the mission of the school; and attend the annual Knight Chair meeting or activity sponsored by the Knight Foundation.
Additionally, Hannah-Jones was offered $25,000 in annual support from the foundation, a startup package of $100,000 from the Office of the Executive Vice Chancellor & Provost to be used for research, professional activity, teaching support and student engagement, as well as $9,000 in moving costs.
It wasn’t until the May meeting of the trustees, which had previously been scheduled to be the last of the current board, that the matter came back for a vote, says Duckett.
At that point, the trustees had heard Hannah-Jones was unhappy.
“The dean [King] had offered tenure, and she [Hannah-Jones] was unhappy. And that’s when it started. It was forwarded back to us,” Duckett says.
The majority of the trustees then voted to schedule a meeting on June 30, the last day of their term, to vote on the matter.
“I put in writing what my questions were, and I hope they make it public,” says Duckett, adding he has also asked for his emails to be publicly released.
Duckett then explained he looked into the Knight Foundation and the university’s tenure process.
He says the Knight Foundation pays for a third of her salary and the university pays the remaining two thirds. He also says he found out there are 14 different tenure policies at the university, including two separate ones within the Hussman school.
The two policies are for research-based hires and outside hires. The last outside hire to receive tenure was in 2008.
Duckett says, “Just because they did it in 2008, doesn’t mean I had to vote for it.”
He then says he wrote questions, had those questions answered, and then a vote was taken.
It was at that point Hannah-Jones went public with her complaint and threatened lawsuits through her attorneys. Included in the complaints were all 170 members of the General Assembly.
“I’ve never heard of hiring someone who threatened to sue you, no business would do that… But academics isn’t business,” Duckett said.
He says he followed the process and took a vote.
“Some people voted no and I understand it, but it was because of political beliefs. I can’t tell them what to do, I never took a poll. I got feedback from the attorneys,” he continued.
Those attorneys were the general counsel of the trustees, Charles Marshall, and an outside attorney from Atlanta who Duckett says was an expert on personnel law.
Dr. Michael Poliakoff, the president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA), told NSJ he believes the trustees were right to err on the side of caution.
“Tenure is a $3 million-plus investment for the university,” Poliakoff said. “If you look at the latest statistics, 20% of professors have tenure, and it’s steadily declining.”
Poliakoff adds that he thinks not investigating the many factual and historical records surrounding the 1619 Project would have been a breach of fiduciary duty by the trustees when deciding whether Hannah-Jones should have tenure. He says to his knowledge, she hadn’t served on faculty anywhere else before agreeing to come to UNC-CH.
North State Journal asked for any available records, but UNC-CH media relations said in an emailed statement that as a personnel matter, under the state privacy laws, any legal counsel provided to university personnel and the board would be privileged.
In explaining his decision, Duckett references liability coverage from the potential lawsuit.
“I talked to folks I know personally and came to my own conclusion… the state only has so much coverage,” Duckett says, referring to directors’ and officers’ insurance. This coverage protects personal assets of a board’s directors and officers and their spouses in the event they are personally sued for actual or alleged wrongful acts.
“My understanding is there’s a limit on what the state covers if you lose, and it’s a consideration,” he says.
What remains unknown is the specific liability threat posed and what the attorneys told the trustees.
Poliakoff says that in his experience in dealing with university counsels, they “can be risk averse to the point of alarmist.” He also said it was irregular to sign a government contract without the knowledge of the trustees.
“I just wanted my questions answered. It was never about race and I never heard anyone mention race. It was spun out of control and it’s what happens to everything these days,” Duckett says. “The lawyers had a lot to say. I didn’t have BOG or legislators calling me and I don’t care what they think, honestly. I was appointed to do this, and I loved being a trustee.”
Duckett still supports the university, but says, “We’re not telling our story well enough. It’s a damn incredible university and just helped cure COVID. Business school, med school, more people want to work there than ever.”
King said that the past few months haven’t been an easy time, but she hopes to see the university strengthened.
“She earned tenure and there’s things I’m very happy about, [such as] the Board of Trustees affirming the role of the faculty. I, as dean, am committed to finding the common ground on this university campus and making faculty and students of color feel welcomed. We have a lot to build on and we owe it to the students and to the state.”
The remaining questions, including whether Hannah-Jones will indeed file a lawsuit, remain unanswered.