The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill voted Wednesday to grant a tenured professorship to Nikole Hannah-Jones, the journalist who spearheaded the New York Times’ 1619 Project, replacing the previous non-tenured contract agreement after a public outcry over race and academic freedom.
The board of trustees voted 9-4 after a closed-door meeting to extend tenure to Ms. Hannah-Jones, who won a 2020 Pulitzer Prize for her 1619 Project’s introductory essay despite criticism from some scholars about its historical accuracy.
Board Vice Chair Gene Davis said the decision “reaffirms that our university puts its highest values first,” prompting a noisy backlash from the audience, which included student protesters holding signs with messages such as “Shame” and “Abolish the board of trustees.”
“There have been those who have wrongly questioned this university’s commitment to academic freedom and open scholarly inquiry,” Mr. Davis said. “Let me be perfectly clear, our motto is Lux Libertas. Light and liberty. We remain committed to being a light shining brightly on the hill. We embrace and endorse academic freedom.”
Before the board moved into executive session, protesters were removed from the room by security officers, as shown on video posted online by Spectrum News 1, prompting criticism from Ms. Hannah-Jones.
“It should have been communicated how this meeting would go, that tenure proceedings are always held in closed session, and an attempt made to de-escalate,” she tweeted. “Instead Black students were shoved and punched because they were confused about the process. This is not right.”
The university announced in April that Ms. Hannah-Jones would join the faculty in July on a five-year contract as the Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism at the Hussman School of Journalism and Media, but the decision not to include tenure triggered a backlash from faculty, students and media figures.
The Knight Foundation funds endowed chairs at multiple universities, and while not all grant immediate tenure to new hires, such had been the recent practice at UNC Chapel Hill, prompting accusations of racism and viewpoint discrimination.
“The failure to offer Hannah-Jones tenure with her appointment as a Knight chair unfairly moves the goalposts and violates long-standing norms and established processes relating to tenure and promotion at UNC Chapel Hill,” said the Hussman faculty in a May 19 statement. “The two immediately preceding Knight chairs in our school received tenure upon appointment.”
A May 20 letter by 23 Knight Chair recipients urged the UNC Chapel Hill board to approve Ms. Hannah-Jones’ application for tenure, saying the trustees “should be ashamed of their decision.”
Ms. Hannah-Jones had previously agreed to the non-tenured contract, which was not subject to board approval, but her legal team reportedly told the university this month that she would not accept the post unless it came with tenure.
Meanwhile, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund threatened to bring a federal civil-rights lawsuit unless she received a tenure offer, accusing UNC Chapel Hill of seeking “to suppress her research, writing and speech related to the history and legacy of American slavery,” according to a May 27 letter on NC Policy Watch.
Ms. Hannah-Jones, a UNC Chapel Hill alumna, told the Raleigh News & Observer last month that she retained legal counsel to “ensure the academic and journalistic freedom of Black writers is protected to the full extent of the law and to seek redress for the University of North Carolina‘s adverse actions against me.”
“I had no desire to bring turmoil or a political firestorm to the university that I love, but I am obligated to fight back against a wave of anti-democratic suppression that seeks to prohibit the free exchange of ideas, silence Black voices and chill free speech,” she said.
Critics have pointed to newspaper publisher Walter Hussman Jr. — the journalism school was named for his family after he pledged $25 million in 2019 — who has acknowledged sharing concerns about the hire but denied pressuring university executives or board members.
“I was really expressing my opinion as someone that was concerned about the journalism school and what’s really best for the journalism school,” Mr. Hussman told the Daily Tar Heel.
Mr. Hussman is not alone in raising red flags about the 1619 Project, which made Ms. Hannah-Jones a journalism celebrity while igniting an academic and cultural battle over her argument that slavery was at the center of the nation’s founding.
The Pulitzer Center developed a K-12 curriculum devoted to the project, while a cottage industry has sprung up to oppose and debunk the thesis with books, papers and counter-campaigns, such as the Woodson Center’s 1776 Project.
John Hood, chairman of the conservative John Locke Foundation, said Ms. Hannah-Jones’ application was initially part of a package of tenure appointments sent to the board for approval, but after a trustee raised questions, the university converted hers to a five-year contract.
He challenged claims that Ms. Hannah-Jones was the victim of viewpoint discrimination for her left-wing advocacy, saying that “most professors who receive tenure at UNC-Chapel Hill are politically left-of-center. If UNC trustees are applying an ideological litmus test, they’re doing a horrible job of it.”
Mr. Hood cited the stealth edits made by the New York Times after historians challenged her essay and her involvement in a staff uprising over an op-ed by Sen. Tom Cotton, Arkansas Republican, that led to the resignation of editorial editor James Bennet.
“What distinguishes Hannah-Jones isn’t her politics. It’s her conduct,” Mr. Hood wrote in a May 24 op-ed on Carolina Journal. “The problem isn’t just that her signature 1619 Project contained significant factual errors and indefensible claims. When challenged about them, she dodged, weaved and personally smeared her critics. She later tried to ‘memory hole’ much of this.”