UNC Students and Faculty Protest 1619 Project Journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones Being Denied Tenure

Dozens of students, faculty, and community members protested outside the University of North Carolina's Chapel Hill Board of Trustees meeting Thursday in opposition of the board's decision to deny tenure to Nikole Hannah-Jones, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who developed The New York Times' "The 1619 Project."

According to multiple published reports, about 50 people were gathered outside the meeting, holding signs that supported Hannah-Jones being granted tenure. Around 40 members of the school's faculty have also signed a formal letter online in support of Hannah-Jones.

Nikole Hannah-Jones
Author Nikole Hannah-Jones speaks on stage during the 137th Commencement at Morehouse College on May 16, 2021 in Atlanta, Georgia. Getty

During the start of the meeting, protesters were allowed to enter the venue. According to the Raleigh, North Carolina, News & Observer, one person exclaimed to the board members, "Shame on you. Shame on you," and a few sang "We Shall Overcome."

"The 1619 Project" tells the story of slavery in the history of the United States and was originally published in print form in August of 2019 with supplemental material added online. Despite being highly acclaimed, the long-form journalism collection has also received criticism from conservative groups. One, The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), wrote in December 2020 that the project is "infecting our schools" and had influenced legislation that limits the teaching of critical race theory.

The collection also drew controversy from some historians immediately after it was published. In December of 2019, The New York Times printed a letter from prominent historians Victoria Bynum, James M. McPherson, James Oakes, Gordon S. Wood, and Sean Wilentz. The group took exception with certain portrayals contained within the project, as well as noted what they believed were factual errors.

The New York Times Magazine's editor-in-chief, Jake Silverstein, defended the accuracy of "The 1619 Project" against the claims in the letter and refused to issue corrections. However, the Times later removed a statement from its website in the project's introduction, which asserted the collection was made to "reframe the country's history, understanding 1619 as our true founding." The elimination of the line, which did not include a correction notice, let to the National Association of Scholars issuing a public statement that called for the project's Pulitzer Prize to be revoked.

Nevertheless, when UNC announced last month that it hired Hannah-Jones with the title of Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism at the Hussman School of Journalism and Media, many academics called for the author to receive tenure. One early proponent was the president of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, which endows the position for which she was hired. Foundation president Alberto Ibargüen issued a statement saying he hoped UNC would reconsider its decision to offer Hannah-Jones the contract position in favor of tenure.

The journalism school's dean Susan King also expressed her disappointment in Hannah-Jones not receiving tenure in a written statement, calling her "arguably the preeminent journalist of her generation."

The Board of Trustees has not addressed why members did not act on the tenure recommendation. Some feel the school is bowing to pressure from conservatives, and many professors, journalists, and academics have criticized UNC.

This includes Robert Reich, the former secretary of labor under Bill Clinton and current Berkeley professor. He wrote on Twitter: "Cancel-culture conservatives on the University of North Carolina's board of trustees have denied tenure to Prof. Nikole Hannah-Jones, winner of the Pulitzer Prize, because she's a Black woman who tells the truth about our country."

The online statement signed by the school's faculty members said that failure to grant Hannah-Jones tenure "unfairly moves the goal posts and violates longstanding norms and established processes." It also said, "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."

Hannah-Jones earned a master's degree from the University of North Carolina in 2003 and a MacArthur fellowship in 2017. She has not directly addressed the controversy publicly. However, on Wednesday, she wrote on Twitter: "I've been staying off of here today, but just know I see you all and I am grateful."

I've been staying off of here today, but just know I see you all and I am grateful.

— Ida Bae Wells (@nhannahjones) May 20, 2021

Updated 05/21/21 11:55 a.m. EDT: This story has been updated to feature more background information on "The 1619 Project," including critiques from historians.