The drama continues surrounding the faculty at University of North Carolina refusing to award Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones with a tenured professorship.
First reported by NC Policy Watch, Hannah-Jones’ legal team said this week in a letter to school officials that she will not join school “without the protection and security of tenure,” following weeks of controversy over the board of trustees’ misguided failure to grant her the opportunity she rightfully worked to have.
With that on the table, at least three faculty of color announced they are leaving the university for other opportunities in the past week alone, local news outlet Chapelboro reports. “The exits of these faculty members of color are part of larger trend that extends beyond the Hannah-Jones controversy. Leaders from the Carolina Black Caucus told the News & Observer they have been feeling undervalued for years, but Hannah-Jones brings those issues to the forefront again.”
Lamar Richards, the current UNC Student Body President, wrote a scathing open letter calling for a university-wide reckoning. “[This is] just the most recent and glaring example of our university choosing to prioritize the demands of money and power, rather than its students, faculty, and staff,” his letter stated.
The Carolina Black Caucus, a coalition of Black administrators, faculty, alumni, staff, and graduate students, said at its meeting last week that 70% of the 30 attendees at the meeting are considering leaving the university and more than 60% are actively searching for other job opportunities.
The potential exodus of UNC’s Black faculty is emboldened by the departure of Kia Caldwell, a former professor of African American and Diaspora Studies. She has been named the vice provost for faculty affairs and diversity at the University of Washington in St. Louis.
These departures have been enough to prompt UNC law professor and member of the UNC Faculty Executive Committee, Eric Mueller, to call the situation a “crisis.”
“Since signing the fixed-term contract, Ms. Hannah-Jones has come to learn that political interference and influence from a powerful donor contributed to the Board of Trustees’ failure to consider her tenure application,” the letter from Hannah-Jones’ legal team reads. “In light of this information, Ms. Hannah-Jones cannot trust that the University would consider her tenure application in good faith during the period of the fixed-term contract.”
Walter E. Hussman Jr., a mega-donor for UNC and for whom the journalism school is named, was a major critic against Hannah-Jones’ tenure. According to the news site The Assembly, Hussman said in an email to the school’s dean, Susan King, “I worry about the controversy of tying the UNC journalism school to the 1619 Project.” He added that he aligns more with critics of Hannah-Jones’ work, including James McPherson and Gordon Wood, both historians who have publicly rebutted claims in the Project, which was published in 2019 in The New York Times Magazine. The 1619 Project “reframe[s] the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of our national narrative,” highlighting the year the first enslaved people were brought to the colonies that became the United States.
School officials declined to comment on the specifics of the letter, but Joel Curran, UNC-Chapel Hill’s vice chancellor of communications, confirmed to NBC News that Hannah-Jones’ attorneys have contacted the university. “While this remains a confidential personnel matter…we feel she will add great value to the Carolina campus.”
Attorneys with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and law firms Levy Ratner and Ferguson Chambers & Sumter reportedly wrote in documents obtained by NC Policy Watch that they “intend to bring litigation to vindicate Ms. Hannah-Jones’ rights under federal and state law” should the university fail to offer her a tenured professorship by June 4.
In the new letter, Hannah-Jones’ legal team highlighted that the “inferior terms of employment” offered to her resulted from unconstitutional free speech violations and “discrimination and retaliation” on the basis of race and sex.