How Chapel Hill Bungled a Star Hire

Declining a faculty position at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Nikole Hannah-Jones on Tuesday gave a detailed account of the pain and disappointment she had experienced during a drawn-out tenure process that concluded last week. In a 4,000-word statement, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist took piercing aim at university leaders, who, she said, had failed to show courage when powerful forces lined up against her.

“When leadership had the opportunity to stand up,” Hannah-Jones wrote, “it did not.”

Hannah Jones, who is Black, described in her statement a crushing decision, in February, to accept an untenured appointment as Chapel Hill’s Knight chair of race in investigative journalism. She did so without public protest, she said, rather than “face the humiliation of letting everyone know that I would be the first Knight chair at the university to be denied tenure.” (The campus’s three previous Knight chairs were white).

In Chapel Hill last week, The Chronicle spoke with campus leaders, including the chancellor, provost, journalism-school dean, and a trustee closely involved in the case. From these conversations, a picture formed of a hiring process that began with great optimism and unraveled in uncertainty and acquiescence. At steps along the way, key decision makers at Chapel Hill chose compromise over insistence and resolution over resistance. In the end, they had nothing to show for it.

Rather than come to Chapel Hill, Hannah-Jones announced on Tuesday, she will join the faculty of Howard University, a historically Black college where she’ll help found the Center for Journalism and Democracy as the institution’s inaugural Knight chair for race and journalism.

Her announcement came days after Chapel HIll’s Board of Trustees, under enormous public pressure, voted 9 to 4 in favor of granting her tenure. The board had previously declined to vote on tenure for Hannah-Jones, whose signature work, “The 1619 Project,” has become a flashpoint in a contentious political debate about how race and history are taught in colleges and schools.

By stalling a vote on Hannah-Jones’s tenure case, which had the backing of faculty committees and the provost, the campus’s board invited criticism that politics were in play. The board’s members are appointed by the Republican-controlled legislature and a system board with deep ties to that party.

As the case made national news, little was heard publicly from the campus’s highest-ranking academic leaders: Kevin M. Guskiewicz, Chapel Hill’s chancellor, and Robert A. (Bob) Blouin, the provost.

The silence stung, Hannah-Jones said in her statement.

“Why would I want to teach at a university,” she said, “whose top leadership chose to remain silent, to refuse transparency, to fail to publicly advocate that I be treated like every other Knight chair before me? Or for a university overseen by a board that would so callously put politics over what is best for the university that we all love? These times demand courage, and those who have held the most power in this situation have exhibited the least of it.”

We had agreed to a workaround that in the end could not stand.

Tenure is a personnel matter, which, campus leaders have said, limits what they can discuss about the case. Litigation is also still being considered, a lawyer for Hannah-Jones told The Chronicle on Tuesday.

In recent weeks, as the push for the board to consider Hannah-Jones’s tenure case gained momentum, there was a sense among some faculty members at Chapel Hill that the best thing administrators could do publicly would be to shut up and try not to tick off any trustees or lawmakers. But that diplomatic silence carried its own cost. It rendered opaque the truth of how Hannah-Jones’s case unfolded, and it fed perceptions that university leaders were privately accepting of moral compromise and tolerant of political interference.

It was only in the glare of the public spotlight that anything changed.

Susan King’s office is a glorious mess.

The dean of the Hussman School of Journalism’s office walls are covered with framed photos from her days in Washington, where she worked for two decades as a journalist. In one photo, she jockeys for position among a throng of reporters, stretching a microphone toward Ronald Reagan. In another, King talks with President Reagan on Air Force One.

On Thursday, the day after the board had approved Hannah-Jones’s tenure, King pointed out another keepsake on her bookshelf: A copy of an advertisement, published in The New York Times, in 2018, commemorating Hannah-Jones’s receipt of the John Chancellor Award for Excellence in Journalism from Columbia University.

“It’s yellowed,” said King, pointing at the newspaper page.

More than a memento, the old news clipping is, to King’s mind, an evidentiary exhibit. It’s proof, she said, that Hannah-Jones had been on the dean’s radar for years — before “The 1619 Project” had even been published, much less become a political cudgel for conservatives. Hiring Hannah-Jones, King said, wasn’t some effort to stick it to Republicans or an off-the-cuff decision. It was a yearslong aspiration, she said.

King, who became dean in 2012, said she had “never seen a better package” for tenure than the one Hannah-Jones presented. But when the case reached a standstill, King signed off on an alternative that, upon closer examination, turned out to be untenable, she said. Under the contract, Hannah-Jones would earn a salary of $180,000 with an option of being reviewed for tenure at a later date. To sweeten the deal, the provost had agreed to provide an additional $100,000, which Hannah-Jones could use to hire graduate students or others to work with her, King said. But once the deal was perceived as “second best,” King said, it was “not doable.”

“We had agreed to a workaround that in the end could not stand,” she said. “And I take full blame for that.”

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

The Hannah-Jones case presented some potential awkwardness for King. As it was moving through the committee approval process, King was hearing criticism about the hire from Walter E. Hussman Jr., the Arkansas newspaper publisher for whom the journalism school is named. Hussman, who has pledged $25 million to the school, had sent emails skeptical of hiring Hannah-Jones, not only to the dean, but also to the chancellor and the vice chancellor for university development, The Assembly first reported in May. Hussman has also acknowledged contacting at least one board member.

“I disagreed with Walter,” King said. “I’ve told him where I disagree.”

Hussman’s involvement in the case raised deeper questions about donor influence. King, however, declined to answer questions about when and where the donor might have crossed a line. Was it wrong to raise his objections with her? With others?

“I’m just not going to answer,” she said flatly.

(Hussman has told The Chronicle that he did not think he applied any undue pressure in the Hannah-Jones case. But when he asked King to publicly state that he had not pressured her, she refused to do so, Hussman said.)

The publisher is a champion of journalistic objectivity, and he has argued that Hannah-Jones’s work appears agenda-driven. King has thoughts on that idea, which might not square with Hussman’s: The lived experiences of people who cover the news are additive — not something to be suppressed.

“I’ve seen the change in journalism because a whole group of women came into it,” King said. “I want Black men and women. I want Latino men and women. I want Asian men and women. I want gay men and women. I want the panoply of our society in the newsroom, because we’re going to get much more objective news if it reflects all the different points of view.

“Objectivity doesn’t mean that one person has decided what the story is, and, therefore, they hold the whole truth.”

Last Wednesday afternoon, Charles G. Duckett wore a dark-blue suit and a bright-yellow tie to the board’s special meeting at the historic Carolina Inn. It seemed everyone in the room wanted his ear, as fellow trustees pulled him aside for conversations before the official proceedings began. There are few people who are likely to know as much about what happened behind-the-scenes with Hannah-Jones’s tenure case as Duckett, whose term ended just after last week’s tenure vote.

Duckett was chairman of the board’s university-affairs committee, which is the first to receive recommendations from the provost on tenure cases. In this role, he was in a position to put the brakes on Hannah-Jones’s tenure approval, which he did.

In the end, Duckett voted in favor of awarding tenure to Hannah-Jones, apparently satisfied, after months of delay, that she deserved it. (Duckett’s questions about Hannah-Jones’s case reportedly related to her classroom teaching experience, among other things).

When the meeting adjourned, Duckett headed through the hotel’s hallways toward a parking lot, indulging a few questions from The Chronicle along the way. He had “never been under any political pressure” to stall the vote, he said, but he had questions that, until recently, had not been satisfactorily answered.

Those questions were initially cited as the reason for the vote’s being held up, but the timeline has never been entirely clear. When did Duckett submit questions and to whom? Did these queries go unanswered in November, when the board, according to Hannah-Jones, was first slated to vote? Or in January, when the board again declined to act? Or sometime after that?

I want the panoply of our society in the newsroom, because we’re going to get much more objective news if it reflects all the different points of view.

Asked about this, Duckett said that it was not until after the board met in May, when the controversy was in full bloom, that he had directed specific questions about Hannah-Jones toward the provost. His answer seems to undercut the argument that the board, in trying to do its due diligence on a tenure candidate, did not act because the administration had failed to respond to legitimate inquiries.

Here is how that portion of the interview played out. (The conversation has been lightly edited for clarity).

Chronicle: I thought the whole reason that there wasn’t a vote in January was because you had questions.
Duckett: I did. Nobody ever asked me what they were.
Chronicle: Did anyone know you had questions?
Duckett: Yeah, I sent an email to that effect.

(Note: The Chronicle has filed numerous public records requests for emails related to this case).

Chronicle: Did you tell the provost what the questions were in January?
Duckett: No, I told him I had questions. It creates a discussion.

But it didn’t create a discussion that led to a tenure vote. Rather, the provost later told The Chronicle, it created “delays, and those delays caused uncertainty.”

“In my communications with Trustee Duckett, he did indicate that he had questions,” Blouin, the provost, said in an interview last week. “But he never indicated to me, until very recently, the specificity of any of those questions. I was fully prepared to address, as is the custom, all questions within the normal framework of a trustee meeting.”

(Citing confidentiality of personnel matters, Blouin said he could not discuss what Duckett’s questions were about).

There were concerns, Blouin said, that, if the case dragged on, the university might lose the chance to hire Hannah-Jones entirely — with or without tenure.

“We were on a short clock, and we very much wanted Nikole to come,” Blouin said.

In light of the controversy the case generated, Blouin says he wonders if things might have played out differently had he been more forceful or more insistent.

“Would it have been better for me to take the risk, and just put it back on the agenda for the March meeting?” he said. “I certainly have thought about that quite a bit. But, after consultation with the chancellor and paying attention to what was going on around us, we more or less decided that this would be the safer route.”

The safer route took Chapel Hill down a tumultuous path, damaged its reputation, spawned concerns about faculty of color leaving the campus, and ended with Hannah-Jones taking her talents elsewhere. It also leaves open the possibility of a future legal fight.

“The discrimination occurred,” said Jin Hee Lee, a lawyer with the NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund Inc., which is helping represent Hannah-Jones. “Whatever happened afterwards doesn’t obviate the fact that she suffered from discrimination both in terms of race and gender, as well as her expressed viewpoints.”

Last week, the case created a spectacle, as protesters were physically removed from the board meeting, refusing to leave as the trustees moved into a closed executive session to discuss the case. Once the protesters were removed, they bunched together in a hallway, taking turns with a megaphone to curse the trustees and the chancellor.

“They don’t want us to have tenure,” said one of the protesters, who is Black. “They don’t want us here. And we got the message loud and clear today.”

“We will not forget,” she added. “We will not , hut up.”

Paris Miller-Foushee, secretary of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro NAACP, was among the protesters at the meeting. Even then, before Hannah-Jones had turned down the job, the episode had revealed Chapel Hill’s failures around race and equity, she said.

“If it takes all of this to get tenure — a lawsuit, demonstrations, and weeks of protesting — that doesn’t point to progress in any kind of way,” Miller-Foushee said.

On Wednesday, before Duckett stepped into a black BMW and drove off, The Chronicle asked him if he had any regrets about the pain that the case had caused. He appeared taken aback.

“How would anybody say no to that?” he said.

The Hannah-Jones case is just the latest controversy at Chapel Hill. In recent years, the campus has had Confederates over the fate of a Confederate monument, known as Silent Sam, which was toppled by protesters in 2018. A major academic scandal, involving athletes enrolled in sham classes, isn’t far in the rearview mirror, either.

But for Guskiewicz, who was named chancellor in 2019, the Hannah-Jones case is likely to be a defining crisis. After the board’s vote on Wednesday, he slipped out the back door of the Carolina Inn and began work on a message to the campus about Chapel Hill’s recent trying weeks. In it, he said he was “pleased that the issue of tenure for Nikole Hannah-Jones has been resolved, and I believe she can add great value to our university community.”

The chancellor’s statement, focusing on the resolution of the case, offered no hint of criticism of the board’s handling of the matter. In an interview on Thursday, when asked directly if the board had done anything wrong, Guskiewicz offered no criticism.

“It is a complex governance structure that I work within,” he said. “I value the unique perspective that each of those board members brings to the table for addressing the issues that we were faced with.”

Part of the chancellor’s job, Guskiewicz said, is familiarizing board members, who typically come from outside academe, with the best practices of major research universities like Chapel Hill.

“It’s about educating our board members about the fact that chancellors and provosts don’t hire the faculty,” he said. “The faculty at great universities like ours set the curriculum. They are at the forefront of hiring the faculty and making decisions around who can best deliver on that curriculum, alongside their department chairs and deans.”

Guskiewicz, who was not made available on Tuesday for a follow-up interview, said in a statement that he was “disappointed” Hannah-Jones would not be joining Chapel Hill’s faculty. He said the campus must support its Black students, faculty, and staff members, who had “helped us understand their anger and frustration with this process and their experiences on our campus.”

It is not uncommon for a chancellor to avoid publicly criticizing his or her board. The alternative is usually a good way to get fired. But the Hannah-Jones case centered on mission-critical issues about diversity, equity, and faculty control over the academic enterprise. It was a moment that cried out for a boldness that Hannah-Jones found lacking from Chapel Hill’s leaders.

The vote might not have happened at all without the urging of Chapel Hill’s student-body president, Lamar G. Richards, who formally requested a special meeting of the trustees to take up the matter. By virtue of his office, Richards, who is Black, is a voting member of the board.

In a message posted to Twitter on Tuesday, Richards said:

In reply, Hannah-Jones said she was “in awe” of Richards, who had led “where more powerful people cowered.”

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