Medill dean condemns rejection of tenureship for Nikole Hannah-Jones, professors sign nationwide statement


John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation/TNS

The statement comes after Hannah-Jones, a Pulitzer Award winning investigative journalist, was denied tenureship by University of North Carolina.

Yunkyo Kim, Campus Editor

Medill Dean Charles Whitaker and Northwestern professors joined journalism faculty across the country in signing a Wednesday letter in support of Nikole Hannah-Jones. 

The statement comes after Hannah-Jones, a Pulitzer Award winning investigative reporter renowned for “The 1619 Project” which documented the impact of slavery in the United States, was denied for tenureship by the University of North Carolina. It immediately led to criticism. 

In an email to The Daily on Hannah-Jones’ tenureship, Whitaker called the rejection “distressing on multiple levels.”

“That the Board would override what no doubt was a rigorous tenure review process — which, in most instances, includes evaluations from a host of expert reviewers in the field — is an incredible infringement on academic freedom and norms,” Whitaker wrote. “The fact that the decision appears to be based on politics and, dare I say, thinly veiled racism, makes it even more appalling.”

Last month, Hannah-Jones was announced as UNC’s Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism, a position which granted tenureship to her two immediate predecessors. However, instead of an expected tenureship, Hannah-Jones was offered a five-year term, with an option to be reviewed for tenure at the end of the term. A statement spearheaded by faculty members in UNC’s Hussman School of Journalism and Media said the rejection occurred despite support of tenureship from the school’s dean, faculty and university community.

The chairman of the Chapel Hill campus’s Board of Trustees reportedly told correspondents that Hannah-Jones did not come from an “academic-type background,” according to the Associated Press. 

The City University of New York Prof. Jeff Jarvis (Medill ‘75) published the petition, which has over 230 signees as of Thursday night. Along with Whitaker, the running list currently includes Medill Profs. Rich Gordon, Jon Marshall and Caryn Ward. Medill’s Knight Chair in Digital Media Strategy Jeremy Gilbert also signed the petition. 

The letter calls on the UNC Board of Trustees to immediately reconsider the rejection. 

“(The board’s decision) is a personal attack on a journalist we, as journalists and journalism academics ourselves, hold in the highest esteem,” the letter stated. “It is an act of political cowardice.”

Gordon, who signed the petition after being included in an email chain of journalism faculty across the nation, said the denial demonstrated deviation from the Knight professorship, meant to bring people from the journalism industry into academic spheres. People who enter academia from the industry are sometimes considered “second-class citizens,” so tenure grants stability and status, Gordon said. The rejection is ultimately a matter of academic freedom and equity, he added.

“And the whole concept of tenure is to ensure that faculty can do their research and their work without fear of running afoul of political considerations,” Gordon said. “This is what tenure is designed to do — to protect from people above them.”

Marshall said given her extremely important work in journalism, the rejection of Hannah-Jones’ tenure at UNC was outrageous. 

He added that that the rejection was an example of politics intruding into what should have been an academic decision-making process. The rejection sets a dangerous precedent for political scrutiny in tenureship, he said. 

“I don’t know what is in the hearts and minds of the people who made the decision not to grant (Hannah-Jones) tenure,” Marshall said. “I do know that the effect of it really stinks of racism that a leading Black journalist has been denied tenure in a position that journalists who are not people of color have been granted for the past.”

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