Statement on the Nikole Hannah Jones Tenure Decision
The recent decision by the University of North Carolina’s Board of Trustees to deny tenure to journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones at UNC’s Hussman School of Journalism and Media marks a disturbing assault upon both the free press and academic freedom. Under normal circumstances the hiring and tenuring decisions made by a university are particular to that institution and not germane to its academic peers or the broader public. We, as faculty of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, believe these are not normal circumstances.
Professor Hannah-Jones, a staff writer for the New York Times Magazine, is among the most laureled journalists of her generation: she has been awarded the Pulitzer Prize, the MacArthur “Genius” Grant, three National Magazine Awards, a Peabody Award and two Polk Awards. Her coverage of school segregation has changed the dialogue around educational policy both locally and nationally and she has, through the Ida B. Wells Society, played an important role in mentoring the next generation of investigative reporters. These are easily tenurable benchmarks of productivity and professional trajectory at any of UNC’s peer institutions, including our own. These factors also help explain why Professor Hannah-Jones, who was hired as a Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Reporting, had the support of the journalism school’s tenure committee, its Dean Susan King and the Chancellor of the university Kevin Guskiewicz.
In an extraordinary override of multiple layers of faculty governance and university authority, the Board of Trustees declined to vote on Professor Hannah-Jones's tenure, a decision that has not yet been fully explained but is likely a product of attacks on her as the creator of the New York Times 1619 Project. The multimedia feature, which examined the role of race and slavery in the formation of the American economy and society, has ignited broad condemnation among conservatives. Historians engage in civil debate regarding these issues but crucially, the Project’s arguments fall well within the parameters of scholarly discussions of the subject. Nonetheless twenty-three Republican Senators and nineteen state Attorneys General have signed letters denouncing the 1619 Project. The protections of tenure are meant for precisely these circumstances — moments when faculty create work or promote ideas likely to provoke controversy and dissent no matter how scrupulously researched and argued. In addition to being unwarranted, the board’s decision produces a chilling effect upon untenured junior scholars whose work examines race, gender, sexuality or other politically contentious areas of inquiry.
Given Professor Hannah-Jones’s status as a journalist, this decision is simultaneously an attack upon freedom of the press. The Board of Trustees at a publicly-funded institution has, in effect, censured a journalist for sound work with which they disagree politically. For these reasons, we, the undersigned faculty of Columbia Journalism School, join the demands of the Hussman School faculty petition in calling upon the Board of Trustees to grant immediate tenure to Professor Nikole Hannah-Jones.
William Jelani Cobb, PhD
Maria A. Fisher
Mary Ellen Schoonmaker
Temima Goldberg Shulman