July 6, 2021

When Nikole Hannah-Jones announced her decision Tuesday morning to teach at Howard over the University of North Carolina, it wasn’t shock that rippled across campus.

It was the powerless feeling of a missed opportunity.

“Of course, I’m disappointed that Nikole Hannah-Jones will not be joining the school this summer,” wrote Susan King, dean of the Hussman School of Journalism and Media, in a statement posted to the school’s website. “… We wish her nothing but deep success and the hope that UNC can learn from this long tenure drama about how we must change as a community of scholars in order to grow as a campus that lives by its stated values of being a diverse and welcoming place for all.”

The news that Hannah-Jones was taking her talents to Howard University via a new endowed chairmanship was first reported online by Joe Killian of NC Policy Watch, around the same time Hannah-Jones appeared live with Gayle King on “CBS This Morning.”

The announcement ended a monthslong controversy that started when the UNC Board of Trustees failed to approve tenure for the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and MacArthur genius grant recipient, despite all previous chairs having been granted tenure and the support of the UNC journalism faculty. Even though the board eventually voted 9-4 last week to grant her tenure, the controversy ended Tuesday when Hannah-Jones, who got her master’s degree at the school in 2003, made the breakup official.

UNC regrets

Deb Aikat, an associate professor in the journalism school at UNC and the vice president of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication, urged people to read his faculty’s statement on Medium, “Racism and Reactionary Politics Kept Nikole Hannah-Jones from Joining UNC.”

“If you are trying to create initiatives regarding race, it won’t be an easy cakewalk for you,” he said. “You would have impediments, and we fell flat on our face at UNC Chapel Hill.” He described the mood on campus as “sad” but “defiant” — sad about Hannah-Jones’ decision to go to Howard, and defiance toward those who stood in the way of a progressive hire.

UNC associate professor Deen Freelon tweeted a thread Tuesday congratulating Hannah-Jones and explaining why he plans to stay on at UNC.

“If you’re feeling disappointed about this outcome, and about your institution, I feel your pain. As a Black faculty member of the dept she was recruited to join, I feel it more sharply than most,” he wrote. But, he said, “We have an amazing school of journalism and media whose members have vigorously opposed the strikingly wrong-headed decisions the university’s leadership has made over the past few years, especially on racial issues.”

Howard rejoices

Howard University early Tuesday announced that Hannah-Jones and fellow journalist and New York Times bestselling author Ta-Nehisi Coates would join its faculty. Hannah-Jones will be a tenured member of the faculty of the Cathy Hughes School of Communications, filling the newly created Knight Chair in Race and Journalism, and a faculty member in the College of Arts and Sciences, respectively, according to a release from the university.

Natalie Hopkinson, an associate professor in the doctoral program in Howard University’s Department of Communication, Culture and Media Studies who also occasionally teaches journalism courses, started receiving text messages from colleagues and others after the news broke Tuesday. She said thrilled wasn’t a big enough word to describe the feeling of Hannah-Jones heading to her alma mater (Hopkinson received her B.A. in political science there).

“I’m struggling to find the words for how exciting and paradigm-shifting this move is from Nikole Hannah-Jones,” Hopkinson said. “It’s fantastic.”

Hopkinson, who has a doctorate from the University of Maryland-College Park, said the news was surprising.

“I haven’t seen anything like that before — that’s why it’s sort of paradigm-shifting because you look at these inclusion battles from the past, especially on school campuses — your Ruby Bridges and Charlayne Hunter-Gaults … they go through all these legal fights and then, when they arrive, they go through even more disrespect,” she said. “It’s kind of a hollow prize, a lot of the times, when you win these battles and you are these barrier-breakers. So this is just a totally new paradigm, a new way to show your worth and reaffirm the values of journalism, truth, justice, and everything.”

If the Pulitzer Prize winner had indeed taken her rightful place as a tenured professor at UNC, Hopkinson said she would have had the support of many because she earned it.

“But to do what she did, it really points to another way of valuing yourself, of bringing your resources to the places that really need them,” she added. “I’ve watched her career over the years and I’ve been in such admiration for the toughness that she has exhibited. It is emotionally draining to fight these newsroom battles. I know them myself, as somebody who worked for major media myself.”

Knight’s newest initiative

The Knight Foundation, a nonprofit organization that awards grants in journalism, communities and the arts, is providing $5 million for the inaugural Knight Chair in Race and Journalism to be filled by Hannah-Jones. That investment includes $500,000 for the Knight Chair to help launch a symposium to strengthen journalism teaching across HBCUs.

“In our view, Howard University is the right university at the right moment to receive an endowment to establish a chair in Race and Journalism,” Knight Foundation President Alberto Ibargüen announced in a statement Tuesday morning. “Howard has a tradition of academic excellence and is known for the development of American leaders. At a time when digital, television, radio and newspaper newsrooms are scrambling to hire journalists who reflect the communities they cover, Howard is ideally positioned to train the next generation of Black journalists. Our investment in Howard will not only endow an academic Knight chair but also boost journalism education at other Historically Black Colleges and Universities.”

In 2014, the Knight Foundation supported another HBCU, Florida A&M University, with an endowed chair. Francine Huff, a former Wall Street Journal journalist, was welcomed as the Knight Chair for Student Achievement.

Howard — a private, historically Black research university in Washington, D.C. — also announced that the appointments of Hannah-Jones and Coates are supported by nearly $20 million donated by Knight Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Ford Foundation, as well as by an anonymous donor.

“Ms. Hannah-Jones’ professional achievements have been recognized by journalism’s Pulitzer, Polk and Peabody awards, a MacArthur Fellowship, and her election to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences,” Karen Rundlet, the journalism director at Knight Foundation, said in an email early Tuesday evening. “We believe she is eminently qualified to train the next generation of journalists.”

The Knight chairs at UNC were endowed more than two decades ago. Rundlet said Knight’s goal is to fund endowed chairs to “enable universities to hire people, who in their judgment, are distinguished in the field of journalism and bring newsroom experience to the classroom.” The Knight Foundation, she said, does not make those hiring decisions — universities do. Knight will continue to fund endowed chairs at UNC in addition to the new one at Howard.

The $5 million Knight Foundation is considered a new investment at Howard.

Other reactions

The Carolina Black Caucus, which advocates for, engages, and empowers UNC Black faculty and staff, released a public letter of support for Hannah-Jones. “While our community fought tirelessly to ensure that university leadership provide the tenure offer that she rightfully earned, we completely understand the choice not to come to work at an institution that willfully disrespects you at every turn,” the letter states. “We honor her determination and will continue to celebrate her excellence.”

In a statement published on the website of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which represented Hannah-Jones, she thanked some members of the UNC community who supported her in her effort to become tenured.

“The only bright light has been all of the people who spoke up and fought back against the dangerous attack on academic freedom that sought to punish me for the nature of my work, attacks that Black and marginalized faculty face all across the country,” the statement said.

Hannah-Jones acknowledged King who, the statement said, “in a vacuum of leadership, has exhibited courage, integrity, honesty, and a refusal to be bullied even if it cost her.”

She acknowledged the journalism school’s faculty “who spoke truth to power and stood up not just for me, but for the academic integrity of North Carolina’s flagship university.”

“And most of all,” the statement said, “the students at Carolina, who protested and fought to hold the Board of Trustees accountable, even as you were treated with disrespect by the institution charged with serving you.”

At the end of the day, UNC’s Aikat said, it was the actions of the board of trustees that led to this moment.

“The blocking of our appointment came from a quarter that we never expected — we never expected that the board of trustees would block that. And that was the biggest shock,” he said. “We live in a society today where we are in the midst of a racial reckoning, and instead of trying to address the issue in an easy way where we are welcoming to people who would create change, we obstructed that person.

“This is not the Carolina we want.”

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Barbara Allen is the director of college programming for Poynter. Prior to that, she served as managing editor of Poynter.org. She spent two decades in…
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