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Media narrative challenged on why 1619 Project creator didn't get tenure at UNC

Taxpayer-funded university has a history of hiring "activist-scholars" like Nikole Hannah-Jones, critic says.

Updated: May 25, 2021 - 11:34pm

The creator of The New York Times' 1619 Project is joining the University of North Carolina journalism faculty in July, funded by a Knight Foundation grant.

The academic world has not greeted the news with jubilation, but rather outrage — because Nikole Hannah-Jones was not given tenure to start.

"Political pressure from conservatives," particularly a North Carolina-focused education think tank, led the university to offer Hannah-Jones a fixed five-year term, according to NC Policy Watch, a project of the progressive North Carolina Justice Center. 

That narrative was spread far and wide, leading to widespread denunciations from UNC journalism faculty, black and Hispanic journalist groups and fellow recipients of the faculty positions funded by the Knight Foundation at 21 universities. It also appears to be false, based on the timeline of decisions.

The UNC trustee who oversees lifetime appointments, Charles Duckett, postponed the tenure review for Hannah-Jones in January, three months before UNC announced the hire, board chair Richard Stevens told reporters last week.

Duckett "asked for a little bit of time" to ask Hannah-Jones to clarify her background, since she does not have "a traditional academic-type background," according to Stevens. She accepted the five-year term, which lets her continue as a New York Times journalist, before the full Board of Trustees voted.

Asked what he specifically wanted to know from Hannah-Jones, Duckett told Just the News no one had asked for his side until now. "I cannot comment today due to issues outside my control," he said. "I normally do not respond at all but appreciate the question."

At a committee meeting he chaired, the trustee challenged the insinuation by Mimi Rogers, UNC faculty chair, that the board must "rubber stamp" tenure recommendations by faculty, the News & Observer reported. 

Hannah-Jones herself has stayed mum despite her penchant for picking fights with critics on Twitter. She didn't mention tenure when disclosing she got the position April 26, and didn't respond to a query from Just the News. 

While a reporter noted Monday that Hannah-Jones had removed her Twitter reference to UNC's journalism school, a spokesperson for the school responded that Hannah-Jones's contract had not changed. (She is eligible for another tenure review during her fixed term.)

Inaction on tenure shows racism

When NC Policy Watch broke the news last week that Hannah-Jones did not get tenure, as advertised in the job description, it quoted an unnamed trustee who claimed UNC, trustees and the UNC System's Board of Governors "have all been getting pressure" since her hire was announced a month earlier. 

The left-wing media organization portrayed the decision as racist and strongly implied it was a coup for the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal. The education think tank is "enormously influential in the state's conservative movement" and was founded with the help of Board of Governors member and conservative donor Art Pope.

NC Policy Watch referred back to its previous report, which noted the Martin Center criticized the hire as a "degradation of journalistic standards" and said it illustrated why each university's board of trustees should be "required to review every proposed hire," regardless of tenure.

A spokesperson for the journalism school told Just the News last week it wasn't sure why the board "did not act on her tenure package" but was told "there was reluctance to grant tenure" to a non-academic.

"The University and the journalism school very much wanted Nikole to join us, and she was offered a Professor of the Practice 5-year fixed term contract," Susan King, dean of the journalism school, said in a statement.

The Martin Center pushed back on reporting that suggested "external criticism" of Hannah-Jones, including its own, resulted in the board's inaction on tenure. The decision was made before the think tank voiced its criticism, which followed UNC's announcement of Hannah-Jones's hire.

But it also defended the process. "From what I can tell, the Board followed the university's policies," Jenna Robinson, president of the group, told Just the News. "Trustees have the oversight authority for tenure" and are "not constrained to follow faculty recommendations regarding tenure, although they usually do."

She pointed to Board of Governors policy that says the board of trustees of a "special responsibility constituent institution," which includes UNC, "shall … appoint, promote, and set the compensation" for faculty.

Hidden 'designees' list

Shannon Watkins, senior writer for the Martin Center, told Just the News that UNC's board has even more authority than it apparently used in reviewing Hannah-Jones's tenure application. Another policy gives trustees at UNC schools authority over "permanent and temporary appointments and salaries."

Given that Hannah-Jones's claims about America's founding have been widely challenged by historians, the most likely explanation for her hiring is that "unaccountable faculty and administrators" bypassed the trustees from the start, Watkins wrote May 10.

UNC's journalism school states explicitly that "appropriate University committees and boards" must approve all tenure-track faculty, but also lets trustees "delegate" this responsibility "to their chancellors, or to specific designees of the chancellor."

The Martin Center requested a list of names of these designees from the UNC System but has not heard back as of last week, Watkins said. Just the News made the same request to the UNC System and UNC itself on Tuesday; UNC responded to the query but has not provided a list.

Watkins cited several other "questionable" hires by UNC "that likely resulted from trustee oversight being cut out of the picture," including an indicted member of the Weather Underground and an activist who "toted an AR-15 rifle to the 2017 Charlottesville protest."

"Trustees shouldn't have the option to delegate their authority on matters of such central importance to the university," if the public has any interest in keeping "activist-scholars" like Hannah-Jones out of faculty positions, she wrote.

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