August 5, 2021

Pulitzer Prize-Winning Journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones Joins Howard U. After Rejecting UNC Tenure

9 min read

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.AMY GOODMAN: Now we’re turning to Nikole Hannah-Jones. After months of controversy, the acclaimed journalist, The New York Times, announced Tuesday she’s decided not to join the faculty at her alma mater, UNC-Chapel Hill. Instead, the Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter will join the faculty at Howard University, the prestigious historically Black university, where the Knight Foundation has established a tenured, endowed professorship in race and journalism for her. She also plans to create the Center for Journalism and Democracy. Acclaimed journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates, who’s a Howard alum and close friend of Hannah-Jones, will join her at the school in running the center.
The decision by Hannah-Jones comes after her tenure was initially denied by the University of North Carolina board of trustees in May, after it was first unanimously approved by the faculty. The board typically rubber-stamps tenure for professors who have won such approval from their peers. The decision to deny her tenure was reversed last Monday after massive protests from alumni, faculty and students.
Nikole Hannah-Jones spoke Tuesday on CBS This Morning with host Gayle King about her decision to decline the tenured professorship at UNC-Chapel Hill.

NIKOLE HANNAH-JONES: This was a position that, since the 1980s, came with tenure. The Knight chairs are designed for professional journalists, who have been working in the field, to come into academia. And every other chair before me, who also happened to be white, received that position with tenure. I was denied that.

GAYLE KING: It has never been denied. No one —

NIKOLE HANNAH-JONES: Never.

GAYLE KING: — had ever been denied tenure before.

NIKOLE HANNAH-JONES: Exactly. And I went through the tenure process, and I received the unanimous approval of the faculty to be granted tenure. And so, to be denied it and 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.

AMY GOODMAN: Nikole Hannah-Jones is best known for her work at The New York Times, where she produced The 1619 Project, an interactive project that reexamines the legacy of slavery. She’s won the Pulitzer Prize for her work. She told CBS This Morning why she thinks UNC denied her tenure.

NIKOLE HANNAH-JONES: What has been reported is that there was a great deal of political interference by conservatives who don’t like the work that I’ve done, particularly The 1619 Project, and also by the powerful donor who gave the largest donation in the 70-year history of the journalism school. So, it’s pretty clear that my tenure was not taken up because of political opposition, because of discriminatory views against my viewpoint and, I believe, my race and my gender.

AMY GOODMAN: For more, we’re joined in Greensboro, North Carolina, by Joe Killian, investigative reporter for NC Policy Watch, who Nikole Hannah-Jones credited with breaking the story about the, quote, “discrimination I faced in the UNC tenure debacle,” she said. His latest story is an exclusive print interview with her headlined “Nikole Hannah-Jones declines UNC tenure offer, heads to Howard University.”
Welcome to Democracy Now! We’re talking about one of the — the oldest public university in the United States, Joe Killian. Take us through it, what happened, and who the donor is — this critical point — that the university’s journalism school is named for, who intervened in this process.
JOE KILLIAN: Sure. Well, it’s a little oversimplistic to say she was denied tenure, because it actually was much more unusual than that. They actually just decided not to vote on it, which is something you see in politics, not usually in academia. Killing something in a committee, making sure it never comes out of a committee, never comes to a vote, nobody is on record publicly one way or the other, that’s something you see at the North Carolina General Assembly. It’s something you see at city councils and county commissioner meetings. It’s not generally something you see on a board of trustees of a major university. And that’s what happened here.
And our reporting revealed that not only was there conservative backlash to the idea of her working at the university, from conservative activists and elected Republicans, but also from Walter Hussman, who is an Arkansas media magnate who graduated — graduate of the journalism school, who gave $25 million in 2019, which led to the school being named after him and the school agreeing to etch what he calls his “core values” of journalism into a wall at the university.
He was — I interviewed Hussman, and he said that he had concerns about The 1619 Project and also about an essay that Hannah-Jones wrote on the idea of reparations for Black Americans for slavery, and he took those concerns all the way up the chain. He didn’t get the answer that he wanted from the school’s dean, who said, “Thank you for your input, but we’re going to make the decision ourself,” so he went to the chancellor, he went to the vice chancellor, who oversees financial giving, and at least one member of the board of trustees itself.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And I wanted to ask you — this whole issue of tenure for faculty, we’ve seen several battles now in recent years about prestigious universities not approving tenure for prominent Black and Latino scholars. What do you say to people who say these are basically tempests in a teapot, that these are middle-class intellectuals seeking to get approval of a permanent job, lifetime job, as tenure is, in these universities, when millions of Americans want just a decent-paying job and can’t dream of having lifetime tenure? How important are these battles, in terms of the battles over institutional racism in the society right now?
JOE KILLIAN: I think it’s a microcosm of a lot of things we’re seeing in the nation, right? At public universities, certainly at the University of North Carolina system and UNC-Chapel Hill, its flagship institution, these organizations are — their boards, their governing boards, are all political appointees. So, the UNC Board of Governors, for instance, which governs the entire UNC system and all of its schools, has one Democrat right now, because Republicans in the North Carolina General Assembly do the appointing. That Democrat is a Democrat who lost — who was a lawmaker and lost his primary, primarily because of siding very often with conservatives and Republicans. So, that’s who they put on the board there. The board at Chapel Hill is stacked with white men, it’s stacked with people who are conservative, and it doesn’t look anything like the university itself.
You know, is the question of tenure and whether you get a tenure appointment a champagne problem? I think it might seem that way for many people. But Nikole Hannah-Jones doesn’t come from an ivory tower background. She doesn’t come from an upper-middle-class background. She’s from Waterloo, Iowa. She grew up in a working-class community where she didn’t know Black people who went to college. She went to Notre Dame. She went to UNC for grad school. She worked her way up from The Chapel Hill News in North Carolina up to The New York Times and won Peabody, Polk, National Magazine Awards, the Pulitzer along the way. So, when you see somebody doing what conservatives say that they should do — lift themselves up by their bootstraps, achieve in America — and they hit a sort of a glass ceiling for ideological reasons, I think that’s a problem that should concern everyone.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to two clips: one, the megadonor, and then a protester, who at this point might have more power. This is UNC megadonor Walter Hussman speaking in a 2019 video about his $25 million namesake donation to the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media.

WALTER HUSSMAN: We are investing in Carolina and journalism because it’s a very important time in America. Americans are beginning to realize they need to trust a trusted source of professional journalism.

AMY GOODMAN: And now I want to turn to a student. When Black students tried to attend the UNC board of trustees meeting on Wednesday, June 30th, where members voted on whether to grant tenure to Nikole Hannah-Jones, campus police forcibly removed the students from the room.

STUDENT: Get your hands off her! Get your hands off of me!

POLICE OFFICER: They didn’t ask. We told them several times.

STUDENT: Get your hands off of me! Hey, no! Hey, no! Hey, no! My god!

AMY GOODMAN: This is UNC student Taliajah Vann, one of the protesters in that clip, speaking on Black News Tonight with Marc Lamont Hill about whether UNC is a place where she wants to be now.

TALIAJAH VANN: They feel they can do anything to us, treat us any kind of way. I want you all to ask yourselves, honestly — this is what we saw them do today on camera, and they knew the world was watching. How do you honestly think they treat us when you’re not paying attention? I will never, ever, ever forget the lesson that UNC at Chapel Hill taught me today. And I will continue to bring this up when I’m talking to potential Black students who are interested in coming here in the future.

AMY GOODMAN: Now UNC police chief, Chapel Hill, has resigned after what happened at that trustee meeting. Joe Killian, take us from there: the power of Hussman, the power of the protesters.
JOE KILLIAN: Well, I mean, you know, I think that what you’re seeing in that protest clip is a lot of pent-up frustration over a number of issues dealing with politics and race at the university for years, where students and faculty and staff members of color do not feel they’ve been heard, and have had conflict with the people who are governing the university, governing the university system, who are very, very removed from who it is that is attending the university and who teaches at the university, who the alumni are. If you just look at the makeup, the social makeup, the racial and ethnic makeup, of these boards, they just don’t reflect the students. And ideologically, they certainly don’t represent the students. So there’s a terrific amount of frustration built up.
As to how much influence they have, I mean, I think that this incident proves that when the campus sort of speaks as one — faculty, staff, students, alumni, major funders of the university — they can get the attention of the people who are in charge. But, you know, can they make real change? You know, that’s a harder question. Only the members of the North Carolina General Assembly can change the leadership of these boards. And the people coming in are not any less conservative. In fact, I would say that many of them are more conservative than the people who are leaving.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And I wanted to ask you, in terms of the impact of this Knight Foundation money, which supposedly is also attracting other foundations, the Ford Foundation and others, for a multimillion-dollar grant to Howard University, what the impact is going to be of that decision of these major foundations to, in essence, provide an alternative to what UNC was so late in granting to in terms of tenure here.
JOE KILLIAN: Yeah, this is not the first time we’ve seen this, either. UNC lost a major grant after its debacle over the Silent Sam Confederate monument on its campus and how it handled that. And it continues to come into conflict with major donors and to lose donors and money from individuals who donate to the school, you know, to which, honestly, some of the folks who are running the school and running the university say, “OK, that’s fine. We’re doing what it is we want to do, and we believe that we’ll continue to find the money to do that. But we’re not interested in changing direction because these people who fund our work don’t like how we’re managing things.”
AMY GOODMAN: Students toppled the statue, the Confederate statue, in 2018. Now the UNC Press is in the crosshairs of the Board of Governors, which is refusing to reappoint professor Eric Mueller, who criticized the handling of the Silent Sam statue? We have five seconds.
JOE KILLIAN: Yeah, Eric Mueller is a renowned UNC law professor who has been on the UNC Press board for two terms. He was —
AMY GOODMAN: Three seconds.
JOE KILLIAN: — expected to be — expected to be reappointed, was not reappointed, and has butted heads with the Board of Governors.
AMY GOODMAN: We’ll leave it there. Joe Killian, thanks for joining us.