For Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones, a months-long tenure dispute with her alma mater, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, boiled down to two simple words: “I refuse.”
On Tuesday, Hannah-Jones, an acclaimed journalist for the New York Times, turned down an offer to take the Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism. The university granted her tenure after initially offering her a five-year contract without it — a break with what’s typically been offered to previous chairs.
“For too long, powerful people have expected the people they have mistreated and marginalized to sacrifice themselves to make things whole,” Hannah-Jones said in a statement. “The burden of working for racial justice is laid on the very people bearing the brunt of the injustice, and not the powerful people who maintain it. I say to you: I refuse.”
Hannah-Jones will instead serve as the newly created Knight Chair in Race and Journalism at Howard University, where, alongside author and journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates, she will help found the university’s new Center for Journalism and Democracy.
UNC Chancellor Kevin M. Guskiewicz said he was disappointed Hannah-Jones would not be joining the Chapel Hill faculty but wished her the best at Howard. “I am absolutely committed to pressing on and partnering with all those who desire to make Carolina a more welcoming place where every member of our community can realize their full potential,” he said in a statement.
Hannah-Jones’s announcement did not come as a surprise to Trevy McDonald, director of diversity, equity and inclusion at UNC’s Hussman School of Journalism.
“I always felt that Nikole Hannah-Jones had to make the decision that was going to be best for her highest good,” said McDonald, the only other Black woman to ever receive tenure at the journalism school.
“The way she was treated, it was humiliating,” she continued. “It was really, really disturbing.”
Throughout the months-long dispute, Hannah-Jones’s case resonated particularly with Black women in higher education. As tenured professors, they remain chronically underrepresented in the academy. According to federal data, only 1.9 percent of tenured faculty members at doctoral universities in 2019 identified as Black or African American women.
To McDonald, the damage UNC caused during the dispute is “irreparable,” both in terms of the university’s standing and morale among current faculty, who are still processing what happened. But the “million-dollar question” for McDonald and other Black women in higher education is how Hannah-Jones’s case could shift the landscape for Black people in academia, especially for those who do not have the renowned journalist’s fame.
“A lot of people walk this journey alone,” said McDonald.
Hannah-Jones’s might be the most high-profile tenure dispute in recent memory, but it is far from the only one. In December 2019, a national outcry followed Harvard University’s decision to deny tenure to professor Lorgia García-Peña, a renowned scholar of Latinx and Caribbean studies who had won a number of awards at the university. (García-Peña identifies as Afro-Latina.)
Tenure positions are coveted across higher-ed institutions for the job security they bring, but the tenure process can vary from university to university, noted Shardé Davis, a professor in the department of communication at the University of Connecticut.
“By and large, there is a lot subjectivity involved, which can open the door for bias and discrimination,” said Davis. She added: “There are so many other Black academics who have experienced something very similar to Hannah-Jones, but the outcome was not the same.”
For Black female professors, Hannah-Jones’s case resonated on a personal level, even though many aspects of her story were anomalous to what they experience.
According to McDonald, many scholars will encounter problems at the department or university level; in some cases, their bid for tenure may be thwarted by an external reviewer who does not support the professor’s promotion.
This was not the case for Hannah-Jones, who said she was invited to take the Knight Chair role by Hussman Dean Susan King. Her application was supported by professors at the journalism school, and approved by the university’s promotion and tenure committee.
When the school’s board of trustees denied tenure to Hannah-Jones months later, they effectively overrode the recommendations of school faculty, igniting a firestorm that reached well beyond Hannah-Jones.
For Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, a professor of physics and astronomy at the University of New Hampshire, Hannah-Jones’s story is just “the tip of the iceberg” for Black women in academia.
“The case highlights the vulnerability of Black women faculty in general,” said Prescod-Weinstein.
She sees Hannah-Jones’s story as part of a broader movement to target left-leaning professors and people of color on college campuses.
Hannah-Jones’s involvement in the 1619 Project, the award-winning New York Times project she spearheaded, has made her a frequent target for conservatives. Last year, Walter E. Hussman Jr., a major donor to the university, wrote to the school saying he worried “about the controversy of tying the UNC journalism school to the 1619 project.”
Hannah-Jones, whose assistant said she could not be reached for additional comment on Wednesday night, alluded to this pushback in an interview with CBS News’s Gayle King on Tuesday morning.
“It’s pretty clear that my tenure was not taken up because of political opposition, because of discriminatory views against my viewpoints and, I believe, my race and my gender,” she said.
“This is really a backlash against ethnic studies as an analytic frame,” said Prescod-Weinstein, who pointed to scholars of feminist theory, ethnic studies and Black studies as being particularly vulnerable.
Prescod-Weinstein said she has been the subject of harassment campaigns over her frank discussion of race and gender issues. The harassment, she said, has included death threats.
“It’s just a scary thing to have random people calling your department chair and the provost and the president, demanding that you be fired,” Prescod-Weinstein said.
While she feels supported by her university, she noted that this wasn’t the case for others. When there’s a lack of institutional support, the trauma facing a scholar is compounded: “It can really damage your confidence and your ability to go out and keep going in your career.”
She said she’s witnessed other Black women being tokenized by their institutions or pushed out. Unlike Hannah-Jones, they may not have many options to work outside of academia. And because their sense of who they are is so tied up in their work, removing a professional opportunity is not just a threat to their livelihood, but also their sense of self, Prescod-Weinstein noted.
For Black women, navigating academia “is an existential crisis every single day,” said Meredith Clark, a professor of media studies at the University of Virginia.
“Every single day, you have to worry about whether the way you perform your job is going to come up as some sort of critique five, six years from now,” she said.
Clark emphasized that Hannah-Jones’s case is exceptional: Many Black female professors face much more limited options when it comes to job placement and security.
“For so many Black women in academia, this is it. There is no other path,” said Clark. “This is the job we have chosen to feed our families, to put a roof over our head, in many cases, to take care of family members who aren’t going to have access to the same type of material support that we have as a result of being in academia.”
This is true even in the case of historically Black colleges and universities, the vast majority of which are deeply underfunded, compared to primarily White institutions, said Clark.
But Clark sees an opportunity for institutions to learn from Hannah-Jones’s case — to “make sure that such a catastrophic failure does not occur again.”
Looking ahead, she wants to see schools examine how employees are evaluated, what kind of mentoring they receive, and whether there is pay equity across race and gender.
Davis, the University of Connecticut professor, said she admires how Hannah-Jones wielded her power in her tenure dispute.
“She leaned into the fact that she has a choice to make,” said Davis, who started the #BlackintheIvory hashtag last year, following the protests that rose up after the murder of George Floyd.
“I love that for her,” Davis said — not only because Hannah-Jones contested the decision, but because the journalist was “put through the fire” and emerged victorious on the other side.
Prescod-Weinstein said she’s moved by how Hannah-Jones’s community — particularly, Black scholars and writers — united behind her to support and uplift her. She wants to see the same support for Black women who come up against their institutions.
“Academics need to be willing to fight for Black women who are not famous,” she said. But, she added, the press also needs to be willing to see the value in their stories: “What protects people in that situation ... is being able to shame the institution publicly.”