Tenure Denied Hannah-Jones

She has no doctoral degree. She has no scholarship. She has no pedagogical experience to speak of. What she does have is a Pulitzer Prize and a MacArthur Genius grant, which is a pretty big deal, but not particularly relevant to academia. So why was the “creater” of the 1619 Project at the New York Times, Nikole Hannah-Jones, not given tenure by the University of North Carolina?

This raised some serious questions.

Nearly 40 faculty members from the journalism school signed an online statement on Wednesday calling for the decision to be reversed, saying the failure to grant tenure to Ms. Hannah-Jones “unfairly moves the goal posts and violates longstanding norms and established processes.” The statement added, “This failure is especially disheartening because it occurred despite the support for Hannah-Jones’s appointment as a full professor with tenure by the Hussman dean, Hussman faculty and university.”

The faculty voted to grant her tenure. The dean and provost supported the decision. Yet, the decision required the approval of the Board of Trustees.

The website NC Policy Watch reported on Wednesday that U.N.C.’s board of trustees had declined to approve Ms. Hannah-Jones’s application for tenure. A spokeswoman for the university, Joanne Peters Denny, said in a statement that “details of individual faculty hiring processes are personnel protected information.”

Why? The problem in this particular instance was muddied by the controversy surrounding, and to a large extent, caused by Hannah-Jones. Was tenure denied because of her controversial politics, her claim that the United States of America existed for the primary purpose of slavery? If so, then it raises significant issues of academic freedom, regardless of the absence of academic rigor to her views.

On the other hand, there are reasons that distinguish granting Hannah-Jones tenure from others in academia.

If a reaction to her politics, that’s a problem. If it was a reaction to her lack of a Ph.D., scholarship or pedagogical experience, and the faculty vote was in deference to her politics, prominence and awards despite having no qualifications, that’s a different problem.

What were the chances that the UNC faculty would vote against giving someone with the ideological prominence of Hannah-Jones tenure, and be branded racist across the academic, social media and progressive universe? This isn’t to suggest they were insincere in their vote, as it would surprise no one to learn that they truly shared her passionate, if ahistorical, reimagination of America. This would hardly be the first time scholarly rigor gave way to ideological adoration, and to the woke, Hannah-Jones was a star and a pretty huge “get” for UNC’s Hussman School of Journalism and Media.

In the April announcement, the dean of the journalism school, Susan King, said: “Now one of the most respected investigative journalists in America will be working with our students on projects that will move their careers forward and ignite critically important conversations.”

Whether you would agree with the description of Hannah-Jones as “one of the most respected investigative journalists in America” isn’t the point. She is, undoubtedly, a “big deal” journalist. She has a Pulitzer. You don’t. I don’t.

But aside from having essentially no academic qualifications, should her journalistic prominence suffice to grant her tenure? As it turns out, that may not be the right question at all.

The intent of the Knight program is to bring nationally known professionals to campuses. The previous two Knight chairs hired at UNC (Penny Abernathy and JoAnn Sciarrino) did not have a Ph.D. or significant teaching experience. Each was granted tenure on appointment.

In other words, the choice of Nikole Hannah-Jones as a Knight chair professor was where the real issue resided. There have been two Knight chairs in the past, Penny Abernathy and JoAnn Sciarrino, and both were given tenure with their appointment. Nobody said “boo” about it, and it was both wholly uncontroversial and created the precedent that the chair came with the grant. Then again, tenure was not an inherent part of the gig.

Alberto Ibargüen, the president of Knight Foundation, said that while the foundation funds the Knight Chair position at U.N.C., it has no role in appointments. The agreement calls for a five-year appointment, with tenure review within that period, he said.

“It is not our place to tell U.N.C. or U.N.C./Hussman who they should appoint or give tenure to,” Mr. Ibargüen said in a statement. “It is, however, clear to us that Hannah-Jones is eminently qualified for the appointment and we would urge the trustees of the University of North Carolina to reconsider their decision within the time frame of our agreement.”

As much as Hannah-Jones’ claim to fame is exceptionally controversial, and in the eyes of actual academics, the antithesis of scholarly rigor, the fact remains that she was appointed to the Knight chair at UNC and that in the normal course, the holders of the Knight chair were granted tenure upon appointment.

This certainly makes the Board of Trustees’ denial of tenure emit an unpleasant odor of viewpoint discrimination.

That the two previous Knight chairs were granted tenure establishes a precedent that gives rise to a presumption of impropriety. No, precedent is not inviolate, and there may well be distinctions to justify treating Hannah-Jones differently than her predecessors. But the prior Knight chairs weren’t Ph.D.s either. They had no academic experience to speak of. And while they had established their prominence in journalism, they have no peer-reviewed scholarship behind them.

Perhaps the distinction is that Hannah-Jones, unlike her predecessors, enjoyed prominence, not to mention some pretty cool awards, not so much for her work as a journalist as for her manufacture of an unscholarly, ahistorial reinvention of history to suit an ideology. But if so, is that not the very viewpoint discrimination that should not influence a tenure decision? And more to the point, they knew this about her before she was appointed, yet appointed her anyway. Nikole Hannah-Jones may not be your choice for Knight chair or mine, but she was the choice of UNC. Having made that choice, it’s hard to explain why tenure didn’t come with it.

14 thoughts on “Tenure Denied Hannah-Jones

  1. delurking

    Viewpoint discrimination is completely normal in tenure decisions. It has to be. “Viewpoint” and “quality of scholarship” cannot be disentangled.

    As for a candidate getting through one wicket on the way to tenure, but not all of them, it is common enough. The majority of candidates who are recommended by the department are ultimately approved at the higher levels of review, but it isn’t rare for one not to be.

    Tenure is a lifetime appointment, and there is a giant pool of people who want it. Large, old organizations are risk averse. When in doubt, they deny tenure.

    1. Jardinero1

      Tenure is largely misunderstood. In most cases, it limits the “at will” or time oriented clauses of the contract, to “with cause” and perpetual. But, it is not a guarantee of perpetual employment. Tenured professors can and do get fired, with cause. They can and do get laid off when the budget requires it. The biggest benefit to tenure is that you can be a complete dick at faculty meetings and there is nothing anyone can do about it. Just make sure you keep your wick dry, and say nothing taboo, past, present or future.

  2. jfjoyner3

    Maybe the UNC trustees faithfully exercised their fiduciary duty (?). I have served over 100 trusts as the trustee. I’ve never been a trustee for UNC or any other university but surely there is a lot of common ground between my fiduciary duties and theirs. The nature of fiduciary service is conservative. A trustee is expected to be trustworthy. No one respects a trustee who endorses or enables crap equivalent to the crap Hannah-Jones espouses. Maybe, just maybe, in terms of fulfilling their fiduciary duty, they made the right decision.

  3. Hal

    “‘Viewpoint’ and ‘quality of scholarship’ cannot be disentangled.”

    Of course they can. One can recognize good research, good writing, and scholastic rigor even in work that one profoundly disagrees with. Or recognize that something one agrees w/ is poorly written, lacks rigor or factual underpinning.

    1. Dan

      “Or recognize that something one agrees w/ is poorly written, lacks rigor or factual underpinning.”

      …which the rest of the faculty should have done wrt the “1619 Project”. Even if they’ve fully bought in to Critical Theory, the research was shoddy and the conclusions are idiotic, and an honest academic would agree. But CT tells us there’s no objective truth but systemic oppression (and facts and reason are themselves tools of oppression), so rigor and factual underpinning aren’t to be sought any more.

  4. Richard Kopf


    Particularly as former journalists, the statement the academics wrote in protest of the failure to grant tenure to Hannah-Jones contained a curious word choice. That is: “We demand explanations from the university’s leadership at all levels.”

    When one “demands” something one must prepared to back it up. But in this case the faculty is threatening to shoot blanks. Now, if their “demand” was serious, they would resign en masse. (Go ahead, make my day!)

  5. Pedantic Grammar Police

    Maybe this particular set of trustees recognizes the diminishing value of the product they sell, and they hope to stop or at least slow the degradation by showing some small pretense of academic standards. Granting honorary positions to people who write nonsense is one step down; tenure is more of a slip and fall.

  6. Will J. Richardson

    Surely Hannah-Jones initial appointment was no less political than the Trustee’s decision to refuse granting her tenure.

    1. Rengit

      This gets to it, but even beyond politics, Hannah-Jones has built her public profile, brand, and corresponding career through her prolific Twitter posting and following, and academia is increasingly very “on” Twitter; as evidenced by the Don McNeill saga, Hannah-Jones effectively has used Twitter to “hold accountable” NYT higher-ups for decisions that she disapproves of.

      The UNC university trustees are most likely not very active on any social media, particularly Twitter, and are skeptical that someone whose career has been built on her social media personality is worthy of tenure; it transforms it into a popularity contest.

  7. Bryan Burroughs

    Hell, they ran a fake degree program for 20 years. What’s one more fake professor gonna hurt?

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