Nikole Hannah-Jones, lead author of the New York Times magazine’s “1619 Project,” is refusing to join the faculty at UNC-Chapel Hill without tenure, a letter from her legal team to the university this week indicated.
Jones was originally scheduled to start her position as Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism on July 1, which she will now no longer take without the prerequisite condition of tenure.
The UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees presented Jones with a five-year fixed-term contract and decided not to proceed with the tenure vote. Some trustees reportedly did not support Jone’s candidacy given the politically charged nature of her experience, sources on the board told NC Policy Watch. Certain prominent conservatives involved with UNC wanted the board to reject Jones, including major Arkansas donor Walter Hussman, whose $25 million gift to the journalism school led to it being named for him.
The letter said Jones is rescinding her fixed-term contract because of inadequate employment conditions but will not withdraw her application for full professorship with tenure. It also referenced the meddling of the philanthropist in the tenure deliberation process for Jones’s hire.
“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,” it read.
“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. Such good faith consideration for tenure was understood to be an essential element of the fixed-term contract when Ms. Hannah-Jones agreed to enter into it. In light of the information which has come to her attention since that time, she cannot begin employment with the University without the protection and security of tenure,” it added.
The letter also alleged that denying Jones tenure constitutes discrimination that is grounds for a federal lawsuit, citing a number of potential legal infractions including “political influence in violation of North Carolina law.”
“The inferior terms of employment offered to Ms. Hannah-Jones in the fixed-term contract resulted from viewpoint discrimination in violation of the freedom of speech and expression, secured by the United States and North Carolina Constitution…,” it said.
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a non-profit that defends free speech rights on campus, issued a statement in the wake of UNC’s announcement saying that it was investigating whether the decision to revoke the offer of tenure constituted viewpoint discrimination.
“If it is accurate that this refusal was the result of viewpoint discrimination against Hannah-Jones, particularly based on political opposition to her appointment, this decision has disturbing implications for academic freedom, which is vital in allowing faculty members to voice divergent views and in avoiding casting what the Supreme Court called a “pall of orthodoxy” over the classroom,” the statement reads. “When decisions on academic tenure incorporate a form of political litmus test, this freedom is gravely compromised.”
Hannah-Jones’s work has been deemed politically contentious. Historians have called the 1619 project “a very unbalanced, one-sided account” and “wrong in so many ways.” The project teaches that the institution of slavery and racism are intrinsic to America’ history and national fabric and aims to incorporate that doctrine into school curricula.
Susan King, the dean of the journalism school, has defended Jones’s candidacy, claiming that “Investigative journalists always are involved in controversies. They dig deep, and they raise questions that demand answers. Part of what they do is raise uncomfortable questions for people, institutions and systems.'”
King said the university’s provost and chancellor gave the seal of approval to onboard Jones with or without tenure, according to the News & Observer.
“They stood by the school to try to find a way to bring her here,” King said. “She will help our students navigate a changing time in America at a very partisan moment.”