One of America's most controversial journalists, 1619 Project co-founder Nikole Hannah-Jones, has just been denied tenure by the University of North Carolina, where she has been teaching at the school's journalism program (known for the large number of alumni journalists working for Bloomberg, WSJ, Reuters, the AP and the NYT). Hannah-Jones is now threatening to sue the school after her tenure application was denied.
Hannah-Jones, a correspondent for the NYT Magazine, had agreed to teach at the university’s Hussman School of Journalism and Media as the Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism. However, after word of her hiring got out, one of the school's biggest donors spoke out against her hiring, arguing that the 1619 project unfairly demonized white people, according to a report in (of all places) the NYT.
In a letter accusing the school of political interference, Hannah-Jones claimed the school denied her tenure to serve the interests of a "powerful donor" whose influence "contributed to the Board of Trustees" failure to consider her tenure application.
Per NYT, the letter appears to be a refer to Walter Hussman Jr., a newspaper publisher after whom UNC's journalism school is named, and who has publicly complained about Hannah-Jones’s hiring. Hannah-Jones' letter was signed by a lawyer from the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and the law firms Levy Ratner and Ferguson Chambers & Sumter, both of whom are representing her in her attempt to secure tenure.
Hannah-Jones says she's angry because the school recommended that she be granted tenure after her hiring in April, but the tenure board ultimately denied it, instead offering Hannah-Jones a five-year contract with an option to renew. In response, Hannah-Jones, who received a master's degree in journalism from UNC in 2003, has said she was considering filing a discrimination suit.
In another letter sent to the university, Hannah-Jones' legal team said she wouldn't show up to her job unless she was granted tenure immediately.
For his part, Hussman, who has donated tens of millions to the school, admitted that he had criticized aspects of the 1619 Project in emails to university leaders, including Susan King, the dean of the Hussman School. But he said in an interview with the NYT that he didn't want to influence the board’s decision on Hannah-Jones' tenure application.
To be sure, immediately granting professors tenure is a rare occurrence. Typically, tenure is seen as a reward for experienced educators. It's supposed to grant them certain protections allowing them to pursue research without fears about influence, meddling or pushback from the school.
Of course, we suspect that Hannah-Jones is pushing so hard because she fears it's only a matter of time before something she tells students sparks a major controversy in the conservative state. Ever since the launch of 1619, Hannah-Jones has had a target on her back.
Fortunately for her, Hannah-Jones' friends in the media have rallied to her defense. Last month, 1,619 UNC students and alumni signed a two-page advertisement published in Raleigh's the News & Observer that called for Hannah-Jones to be given tenure. In addition, more than 200 academics and cultural figures (including the author Ta-Nehisi Coates, the filmmaker Ava DuVernay and the historian Eric Foner) have signed a letter published in The Root blasting the board for displaying a "failure of courage" in its refusal to grant her tenure.