Nikole Hannah-Jones Suing for Tenure at Place She Doesn’t Work

A truly bizarre controversy at Chapel Hill.

I have been following with some bemusement the public controversy over the 1619 Project’s leader being denied tenure for an endowed chair position she has yet to start at a school where she has yet to teach. Now, she’s taking it to the next level of absurdity.

NYT (“Times Journalist Weighs Legal Action Against University of North Carolina“):

The board of trustees at the University of North Carolina is under intensifying pressure to grant tenure to Nikole Hannah-Jones, the Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times Magazine journalist who is scheduled to start as a professor at its journalism school in July.

Ms. Hannah-Jones, who helped create The Times’s 1619 Project, a series that has drawn criticism from conservatives because of its re-examination of slavery in American history, said she was considering legal action after the university’s board did not formally consider the matter of her tenure.

In a statement on Thursday, Ms. Hannah-Jones, who earned a master’s degree from the university’s journalism school in 2003, said she had retained legal counsel to respond to the board’s “failure to consider and approve my application for tenure — despite the recommendation of the faculty, dean, provost and chancellor.” She said she would be represented by the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, Inc., Levy Ratner, P.C., and Ferguson Chambers & Sumter, P.A.

“I had no desire to bring turmoil or a political firestorm to the university that I love,” Ms. Hannah-Jones said in a statement issued by the Legal Defense Fund, “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.”

Joel Curran, vice chancellor for communications at U.N.C.-Chapel Hill, said in a statement: “We can confirm the University has received a letter from attorneys representing Nikole Hannah-Jones. We have no additional comment at this time.”

Ms. Hannah-Jones was named the Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism at U.N.C.’s Hussman School of Journalism and Media, the university announced in April. The university’s board of trustees, which approves tenure for faculty, is governed by a body appointed by the state legislature, which is Republican led.

I find the notion of granting tenure to someone who doesn’t have a terminal degree and has never taught college bizarre in the extreme. It’s simply not done in normal academic circles. But journalism schools aren’t traditionally academic; they’re trade schools. And it seems to be customary for endowed chairs and, indeed, the bulk of the professoriate to lack doctorates and traditional academic qualifications but rather to be seasoned practitioners. Further, previous Knight Chairs at the Hussman School were indeed tenured at the outset and less well-known than Hannah-Jones.

Still, the notion that she is somehow being “silenced” by being given a five-year contract, with the possibility of tenure thereafter, for a part-time job to be held in conjunction with her existing position at the most prominent newspaper in the country is hard to swallow.

I have seen several prominent academics argue that she is somehow being denied “academic freedom.” But she’s not an academic. Her defenders argue that she’s being treated differently than other Knight Chairs on account of the 1619 Project being controversial. But, first, the only reason she’s being hired in the first place is because of the prominence the project conferred on her and the message that hiring her sends about the school’s stance on social justice. And, second, there are legitimate criticisms of her work on said project in terms of scholarly rigor, intellectual honesty, and collegiality. It seems perfectly reasonable to hire her on a trial basis rather than make her a permanent member of the faculty.

My guess is that the Board will cave to the pressure it’s receiving from all sides even apart from the threat of a lawsuit. But there’s no reason to think they acted wrongly, much less illegally.

FILED UNDER: Academia, Education, Media
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. CSK says:

    I’ve had non-tenure track posts before. (In both cases, I was given an extra few years, I suppose because my colleagues liked to have lunch with me. That’s the deep-down reason why most people get extensions or tenure. :)) But when your time runs out, it runs out.

    Three years or five years and off you go isn’t a great system. In fact, one place where I worked lost three or four budding superstars to it, who later became quite famous. But the practice is standard, and has been for quite some time now.

    Jones is being offered a better deal than most of her peers.

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  2. MarkedMan says:

    James, I’m not sure if you are being deliberately opaque here. The position is a unique and has always been accompanied by tenure before. It is pretty obvious that was a big part of the reason she was interested in the post to begin with. It was accepted within the department and by the tenure committee before she accepted. And then racist Republican politicians (but I repeat myself) couldn’t stomach the idea of a disrespectful n***b*** getting above herself and decided to interfere.

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  3. James Joyner says:

    @MarkedMan: So, what’s your evidence for that? Have they never approved a Black woman for tenure? Otherwise, maybe there’s more to it?

    And, frankly, the argument that it’s fine to hire her based on her political viewpoints but wrong to “deny” her tenure she never earned on the basis of her political viewpoints makes no sense. The 1619 Project is the entire basis for hiring her; it’s a perfectly reasonable basis on which to decline to award to tenure before she’s proven herself as a professor.

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  4. MarkedMan says:

    @James Joyner: The Knight Chair is funded by an outside entity for five year blocks on the condition that the occupant be considered for tenure within those five years. It’s a tacit understanding that the consideration is pro forma and the candidate wouldn’t be accepted unless the tenure would be granted. No previous occupant has been denied tenure.

    And in this case, the position was awarded with full knowledge of her background and positions. She had the legitimate expectation that the administration at the highest levels and the faculty in general supported her tenure. And they did. It is Republican political appointees who interfered, not the faculty or administration.

    There is no way this is about anything other than the fact that she is a black woman who makes Republican political officials angry.

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  5. Stormy Dragon says:

    Leaving out the key detail that the tenure committee had granted her tenure, which is the normal process for making such decisions at UNC, and that only after it was announced, the board of trustees, in response to political pressure from republicans, decided to swoop in an retract the tenure outside the normal process.

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  6. MarkedMan says:

    FWIW, here’s how Chuck Druckett, the Republican Political appointee with no academic background who is blocking the tenure, responded when asked about the fact that all previous occupants had been granted:

    When asked about the precedent that all previous Knight Chairs in the journalism school received tenure upon hire, Duckett said, “just because a board has done something prior does not mean that you’re bound.”

    Read more here: https://www.newsobserver.com/news/local/education/article251692383.html#storylink=cpy

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  7. James Joyner says:

    @MarkedMan: It’s true that no previous occupant has been denied tenure. It’s also true that the position has just been converted from a focus on Digital Advertising and Marketing to one in Race and Investigative Reporting. It’s really a very different animal. Much more controversial.

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  8. Crusty Dem says:

    As a UNC faculty member, I can say that there is every reason to believe the board acted wrongly here. Like the UNC Board of Governors who selects them (who were, as the name suggests, selected by the governor until a Democrat won and the legislature changed how the entire process works in an anti-democratic act), the Board of Trustees is, with the exception of the one student representative, a bunch of far right flunkies. If I pull up my tenure documents, I can find about 15 groups and individuals required to approve tenure and the last one is the board of trustees. The note I wrote on it at the tenure lecture says “purely political theater, have never acted”.

    She wasn’t offered tenure on a whim, or because of the Knight professorship, or for PR; she had to go through a rigorous process approved by departmental and university wide boards, chairs, and deans. She had to check the other 14 boxes on that chart. She needed letters of recommendation from top journalism professors. She needed the chairs and deans to approve her. And at the end of that, a group of politically connected non-academics stepped in and said “no”, and claimed it was due to a lack of scholarship, of which they are literally the only people in the entire process unfit to judge.

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  9. Stormy Dragon says:

    It should also just be noted that just in general, if you offer someone a particular job and they accept, and then after they leave their current employer suddenly want to change the offer, you’re opening yourself for a tortious interference lawsuit even if they “do not yet work for you” and the judge will not share Dr. Joyner’s bemusement (see Bhamer v. Loomis, Sayles & Company, Inc.).

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  10. Kurtz says:

    And it seems to be customary for endowed chairs and, indeed, the bulk of the professoriate to lack doctorates and traditional academic qualifications but rather to be seasoned practitioners.

    Damn right. If Hunter S. Thompson, Doctor of Journalism didn’t get tenure anywhere, then why should she?

    1619 Project? Pff…try embedding yourself with the Hell’s Angels on two bags of grass, seventy-five pellets of mescaline, five sheets of high powered blotter acid, a salt shaker half full of cocaine, and a whole galaxy of multi-colored uppers, downers, screamers, laughers… and also a quart of tequila, a quart of rum, a case of Budweiser, a pint of raw ether and two dozen amyls.

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  11. James Joyner says:

    @Stormy Dragon: That’s fair enough, although I can’t imagine UNC is so poorly run as to not have a clause in the offer that states “subject to Board approval” or the like. Nor is she out anything. It’s not like she quit her job at NYT and then had the rug pulled out from under her.

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  12. Stormy Dragon says:

    Another wrinkle in this: UNC is a public university, and North Carolina state law protects state government employees from workplace discrimination on the basis of political affiliation, which makes the fact this decision is based purely on her participation in the 1619 project an issue as well.

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  13. @James Joyner:

    It’s true that no previous occupant has been denied tenure. It’s also true that the position has just been converted from a focus on Digital Advertising and Marketing to one in Race and Investigative Reporting. It’s really a very different animal. Much more controversial.

    First, I think it is really important to note that the Fellowship explicitly is designed to recruit non-academics to the academy and the history of these fellowships (they exist at multiple schools, IIRC) is therefore quite relevant.

    Second, as noted above, she went through the tenure process and was accepted through that process. If her scholarship was truly questionable, I have a hard time seeing the UNC faculty and others passing her through.

    Third, she is a Pulitzer Prize and Genius grant winner for investigative journalism on questions of race. That makes her a rather perfect fit for the new mission of the position, does it not?

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  14. @James Joyner: That’s fair enough, although I can’t imagine UNC is so poorly run as to not have a clause in the offer that states “subject to Board approval” or the like.

    One suspects that many schools have Board approval as part of the process and one also suspects that it is treated as pro forma. In other places, that power is often devolved from the Board to the Chancellor/President.

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  15. I find the notion of granting tenure to someone who doesn’t have a terminal degree and has never taught college bizarre in the extreme. It’s simply not done in normal academic circles.

    In my day job, I am known to be a pretty significant stickler about the importance of the proper educational background for faculty and have had a key role over the years in moving upward our requirements for tenure and promotion.

    I agree that tenuring someone without a terminal degree should be a rarity. But I would push back a tad on “bizarre in the extreme” insofar as I could see a school like UNC or other top-tiered schools being willing to tenure a non-terminal degreed person in any number of fields, including political science and even in experimental sciences if the the right person from non-academia was available to teach specialized courses.

    I could see, for example, a political science department tenuring a prominent diplomat or former Secretary of State to teach courses in diplomacy and similar areas, even if they did not hold a PhD.

    I could see a computer science department hiring someone after a career at Google or Microsoft.

    Especially when one considers that at a major R1, the teaching load is light and there is already a solid set of faculty to teach everything else.

    All of the above is triply true if there is an outside source of funding paying to hire and tenure a unicorn.

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  16. One last thought: the reality is that the Board almost certainly decided this solely and exclusively on a simplistic understanding of the 1619 Project. That would be like the owner of a football team rejecting a negotiated free agent contract at the last minute after all the professional scouts and other professional coaches had made their assessments and recommendations because his grandson told him that he sucks in Madden.

    On the one hand, the owner has that power. On the other, he is not making a good faith assessment.

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  17. EddieInCA says:

    Dr. Joyner,

    Your blind spots are remarkably consistent. It’s causes me to shake my head, because I know you don’t see the inconsistency of your positions when it comes to some matters regarding race. And this situation not about anything but race. Hers.

    SMH

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  18. James Joyner says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: I agree that professional schools (law, business, journalism, even public policy) are outliers and that hiring what are essentially Professors of Practice is routine. It even makes sense, frankly. The practice of hiring them with tenure absent significant prior university experience just strikes me as nuts, though.

    Overall, I think NHJ extraordinarily qualified. She’s a huge star in the field and still relatively young. That she has a history of mentoring young journalists (albeit, granted, with an especial focus on racial minorities) is also to her credit. But, to the extent she was hired primarily on the basis of an explicitly ideological project, I can’t get too worked up on that same ideological project also being the subject of pushback on tenuring her.

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  19. James Joyner says:

    @EddieInCA: I’m persuadable that the members of the UNC Board are racists who hate Black people. The refusal to grant tenure to a particular Black woman who is famous primarily for her ideological journalism and who has never taught at the university is hardly evidence of that.

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  20. Stormy Dragon says:

    @James Joyner:

    Everyone who grew up in our society has issues with race. Your suggestion that this can’t be about race because the board of trustees aren’t mustache twirling villains who go to meetings in klan robes is exactly the sort of blind spot Eddie was referring to.

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  21. Stormy Dragon says:

    Looking further into this, yet another wrinkle: the board of trustees isn’t even explicitly denying NHJ tenure, they’re just refusing to vote on tenure committee’s decision to award tenure because as is typical with Republicans these days, they know they’re acting in bad faith and don’t want to be on record voting for it so they can pretend they were against if there’s consequences to their reputation down the line.

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  22. @Kurtz:

    Mr. Thompson was granted the title of Doctor by the Universal Life Church. He wasn’t a high school graduate let alone a college grad or PhD.

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  23. Jon says:

    @James Joyner: Dude, you’re just wrong here. Suck it up, acknowledge you made a mistake, learn from the experience and let’s all just move on.

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  24. mattbernius says:

    I feel like I’m uniquely qualified to comment on a few of James’ assertions as for two and a half years I served at a visiting instructor at the Rochester Institute of Technology’s School of Publishing, and I’ve also down work within their school of Design (and know faculty members at other major design schools). I also studied American Journalism (including J-schools) when I was working on my PhD and interviewed a lot of J-School Faculty.

    So first and foremost:

    I find the notion of granting tenure to someone who doesn’t have a terminal degree and has never taught college bizarre in the extreme. It’s simply not done in normal academic circles. But journalism schools aren’t traditionally academic; they’re trade schools.

    If we’re talking about most non-trade programs, this is a little unique. However, it is not “bizarre in the extreme” and that really reveals more of a lack of exposure than anything else. It’s pretty common in any number of schools including:

    – Literature (where well-regarded authors are often granted tenure, it’s dated but a pre-Lolita Nabakov was tenured faculty at Cornell with just a Cambridge BFA)
    – Business
    – Design & Architecture
    – Information technology-related fields
    – Some public policy programs

    The list goes on. And it’s particularly common in Journalism schools. In fact, some of the most well-known (tenured) journalism instructors and university-based public intellectuals in the US are predominantly folks with Masters at best (including Jeff Jarvis, Clay Shirky, and Jay Rosen).

    This is especially common for endowed chairs like Knight.

    There have been moves in some schools to change this (part of the reason why I was told that to continue to teach publishing courses and be considered for tenure I would need a PhD). But that’s outside the norm, and due in large part to school politics at the time (my understanding is they have since moved away from this practice at RIT).

    To be honest, when I first heard about this issue, I was sympathetic to James’ point of view. But after digging into the details, there’s little doubt in my mind that this was a deeply bad-faith exercise by the Board of Directors. And, whether or not this is “racist” it’s deeply tied to the continued Republican embracement of white Nationalism and Identity politics.

    And, second, there are legitimate criticisms of her work on said project in terms of scholarly rigor, intellectual honesty, and collegiality.

    Yes, there are critiques. And there have also been critiques of those critiques by other equally notable academics. And in that respect, it makes it little different than any other controversial work of History.

    There is also @Crusty Dem’s point the fact that all of this would have been investigated by the tenure review board already and they made their recommendation.

    I’m not sure a lawsuit is the correct action here.

    But I also question why NHJ would expect that after 5 years this same board would somehow be ok with the fact that her work — in a chair dedicated to Race and Investigative Journalism — will acceptable for their sensitive Republican white feel-feels. But chances are they would need to steal a professor away from Prager University to actually be approved for tenure by this board. In her position, I would seriously consider walking away… which also poisons the chances of filling this chair with an equally qualified candidate when they know that if they have done any race work that is remotely controversial and conservative activists raise a stink, then they are not getting tenure either.

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  25. I always thought tenure was something that had to be earned no something given before someone who has never worked at an institution

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  26. CSK says:

    @Doug Mataconis:
    Normally it isn’t.

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  27. Mike Schilling says:

    The board are originalists, so they feel free to ignore precedent.

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  28. I always thought that tenure was something granted after several years at least of teacher at an institution not something given before one has even taught one class

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  29. Davebo says:

    @Doug Mataconis:
    See! Who says you can’t learn anything on blogs!

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  30. Stormy Dragon says:

    Looking at the Knight Foundation’s response:

    Statement from Knight President Alberto Ibargüen on Nikole Hannah-Jones’ appointment as Knight Chair at UNC

    I can’t help notice the repeated references to their agreement with UNC and reading that as an implicit threat to eliminate the endowment.

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  31. Kurtz says:

    @James Joyner:

    But, to the extent she was hired primarily on the basis of an explicitly ideological project, I can’t get too worked up on that same ideological project also being the subject of pushback on tenuring her.

    I recall a point you made about The Federalist Papers a few days ago. Over the years, you started to regard them more as propaganda pieces than you had in the past.

    Many years ago, I ran into a professor of mine at the student union. He walked up to me to say hello, and shit, I don’t even remember what the conversation was about. But I said something like:

    The biggest issue I have with Republican economics is that they treat Capitalism as non-ideological.

    His response was, “but it is.”

    I can’t speak about political culture in other societies, but I can say for certain that this is a consistent issue throughout the American Right Wing–this weird belief that ideology only exists on the Left.

    Every social science is tangled tightly with ideology. There is no way to conduct a double-blind randomized controlled trial in history. And there’s no ‘objective’ feedback to test one’s hypotheses as there is in say, physics or chemistry. And yet, the most scrupulously applied methods of both applied science (testing the efficacy of a medical intervention) and natural science (testing an hypothesis against observation of the external world) can’t fully escape bias.

    You characterize the 1619 Project as ideological Why? Because there are errors? Every large project has errors. Ask @EddieInCA and @wr how difficult it is to produce a movie or TV episode with zero errors. Ask NFL teams why they they can’t draft better than any other team over time despite putting millions of dollars and 1000s of work-hours per year into prospect evaluation.

    You presume non-ideological history exists. But it doesn’t. And even if it was more than a fleeting glimpse of an ideal, one must weigh its shortcomings against the deliberate sanitizing of American History wrt race.

    The continuing outsized role of race in America is controversial in the same way the outcome of the 2020 race for the Whit House is controversial.

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  32. Gustopher says:

    @James Joyner:

    I’m persuadable that the members of the UNC Board are racists who hate Black people.

    But, are you persuadable that the members of the UNC board are changing the norms for a particular Black person because of a orchestrated campaign of people who hate Black people?

    Because that’s what this is about — racists and people very comfortable with racists trying to block any and all examination of race in America to preserve their privilege.

    If Nikole Hannah-Jones had done journalism about fluid dynamics or Why George Washington Was Great, she would be treated very differently.

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  33. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @CSK: Certainly true. Still, I’ve known of situations where immediate granting of tenure was one of the conditions either offered or demanded by the faculty member coming in. I’m sure you do to. My sense is that Professor Jones is as much of a heavy weight in her field as those before her who were granted “instant tenure.”

    (Note to Dr. Joyner: I liked the swipe you made at the woman in noting that journalism is “a trade.” Keeping it classy.)

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  34. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @James Joyner: We get it! You’re on the side of the crackers here, and I, for one, thank you for your support. But, and trust me on this, we do just fine without it. You shouldn’t be diminishing yourself on our account.

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  35. Gustopher says:

    @Stormy Dragon:

    the board of trustees isn’t even explicitly denying NHJ tenure, they’re just refusing to vote on tenure committee’s decision to award tenure

    If they wanted to vote against her, and implicitly against the change in the mission of the chair, that would be an entirely different matter. And a potentially reasonable one — a school doesn’t have to teach everything, after all.

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  36. CSK says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker:
    Oh, of course. And Nikole Hannah-Jones has very impressive credentials: a MacArthur Grant and a Pulitzer, in addition to her NYT reportage.

    My point is that a five-year guaranteed job, with a starting salary of $180,000 per annum, at Chapel Hill, is beyond the wildest dreams of most the academics who are being exploited with part-time positions (no benefits, paid by the course, fireable at any time without recourse). The latter’s a great deal for the employer (really cheap labor) and a terrible one for the employees working under those conditions.

    Perspective is sometimes everything.

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  37. Gustopher says:

    I feel like this thread is missing a post about this being a backlash to the cancel culture on the left…

    It is. We are in a fight for the soul of our country, and if you deplatform Nazis, then the Nazis will attempt to use the same tools to strike back.

    The alternative to deplatforming Nazis is letting them keep setting the narrative and history of our country though. These are the people who want everyone to believe that the Civil War was fought over the abstract notion of state rights and an immediate trigger of tariffs. They’re liars who won’t be happy unless everyone repeats the lie.

    Our friend Dr. Joyner often gets caught up into things like this asking “but what if the argument made in bad faith contains a few good points?” without looking at the history that even those good points are never applied universally.

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  38. de stijl says:

    @James Joyner:

    I do not like obviously obtuse Joyner.

    Doug used to pull that shit too bitd.

    I refuse to pretend to understand or even acknowledge the obvious counterpoint.

    Not a good take for an academic.

    She got shit-canned for obviously political reasons in a super obvious manner by an obviously biased group and your instinct is pile on? C’mon.

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  39. @Davebo:

    I guess

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  40. Unsympathetic says:

    This is right-wing cancel culture, James.

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  41. mattbernius says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker:

    (Note to Dr. Joyner: I liked the swipe you made at the woman in noting that journalism is “a trade.” Keeping it classy.)

    I need to defend James on this one. Historically Journalism has been considered at trade. It literally used to be taught via an apprenticeship program. Part of the reason we have Journalism schools was that in the early 20th century, Newspaper publishers consciously attempted to turn it into a “profession” through a variety of means (including establishing academic programs and prizes).

    In terms of academics, most J-Schools remain more trade programs than anything else (I say this as someone with a “trade” undergraduate degree in new media publishing). But I’d also argue this is true for a lot of other applied programs (including business and most IT-related programs). Theoretically, a professional degree is supposed to involve a license or accreditation. But that’s more of a academic distinction than a colloquial one.

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  42. HarvardLaw92 says:

    There isn’t much, if any, basis for a lawsuit here.

    Question though: this foundation funds the position in five year blocks as I understand it. Why should any employer agree to extend what is basically a guarantee of permanent employment on the basis of time limited external funding? UNC should counter with an offer of tenure contingent on the foundation agreeing to fund that tenure in perpetuity. If this foundation likes her enough to believe her deserving of tenure (I don’t…), then it should have no problem with agreeing to such a counter.

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