UNC Loses Out On Leading Black Chemist After Nikole Hannah-Jones Tenure Debacle

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The hits keep on coming for the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. As UNC continues to process the national blowback for denying tenure to award-winning journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones, a Black professor and highly sought chemist declined a position with the university.

Citing the Board of Trustees’ treatment of Hannah-Jones, professor Lisa Jones removed her name from consideration. Inside Higher Ed reported Jones found the decision to defer tenure for Hannah Jones “disheartening.”

She also took aim at the UNC’s alleged commitment to diversity. “It does not seem in line with a school that says it is interested in diversity,” wrote Jones. “Although I know this decision may not reflect the view of the school’s faculty, I will say that I cannot see myself accepting a position at a university where this decision stands.

Reports show the chemistry department tried to lure Jones away from her current position as associate professor of pharmaceutical sciences at the University of Maryland at Baltimore. The chemistry faculty alerted the UNC chancellor to the negative impact on faculty recruitment.

“Professor Jones is a renowned bioanalytical chemist and would have bolstered the department’s mission in research and education,” wrote the chemistry faculty. “Her recruitment also aligned with the myriad diversity initiatives on campus, not least the supporting themes in the Blueprint for Next.”

Both highly qualified in their fields, Jones and Hannah-Jones, would have added to the small poll of tenured Black women professors at UNC. Investigative data journalist Ali Ingersoll found that out of 622 tenured professors at UNC, only eight were Black women.

Ingersoll also found that UNC, Duke, and North Carolina State University had little diversity within full-time tenured faculty. The tenured faculty at the three schools ranged from 74% to 79% white. North Carolina Central University, an HBCU, had the greatest faculty diversity.

Hannah-Jones has since responded to the Jones’ decision and the outpouring of support via Twitter.

“As a Black woman who has built a nearly two-decades long career in journalism, I believe Americans who research, study, and publish works that expose uncomfortable truths about the past and present manifestations of racism in our society should be able to follow these pursuits without risk to their civil and constitutional rights,” Jones said in a statement last week directed at the controversy.

“I had no desire to bring turmoil or a political firestorm to the university that I love, 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.”

Earlier this week, faculty from the UNC political science department released a statement denouncing the Board of Trustees’ decision.

“The faculty identified that Nikole Hannah-Jones is pursuing path-breaking research on the racial history of the United States,” wrote the political science faculty. “The decision not to act by the BOT suggests a lack of respect and due deference for the hours of scrutiny and vetting by the faculty in the school of journalism, the faculty on the Appointments, Promotion, and Tenure Committees, faculty consulted outside the university, and the Dean and Provost.”

Like their colleagues in the chemistry department, the political science faculty pointed to UNC’s strategic plan and commitments to faculty diversity and inclusive excellence.

“Decisions such as this harm the University’s reputation throughout all academic disciplines,” the faculty continued. “They also raise questions about whether the University can be a welcoming place to have difficult conversations about race and history.”

The faculty letters follow weeks of support for the New York Times journalist and creator of the 1619 project. Hannah-Jones has maintained overwhelming support from faculty and those directly involved in the tenure process.

The UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media faculty previously wrote that the trustee’s decision violated norms on tenure and promotion. On Friday, the journalism faculty released a statement in response to the board’s failure to meet a deadline set by Hannah-Jones regarding her tenure. Citing possible donor influence in failing to award Hannah-Jones Tenure, the faculty called on the board to get right.

“To maintain our commitment to excellence, to enrich the next generation of leaders, and because of her exceptional merit, we again call on the Board of Trustees to tenure Nikole Hannah-Jones as the Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism — with immediacy and ease,” wrote the faculty.

The journalism school courted Hannah-Jones despite pressure from a major donor to set her aside. Emails recently uncovered by The Assembly show Walter Hussman Jr. tried to dissuade UNC from engaging Hannah-Jones for the Knight Chair position.

Although he claims he was not trying to influence anything and just “offered his opinion,” Hussman contacted the university’s chancellor, vice chancellor for university development, and the Hussman School of Journalism and Media dean. 

The UNC’s journalism school was renamed in 2019 after Hussman donated $25 million to the school. Hussman tried it and failed. Despite being a “working journalist,” Hussman was surprised his emails to the staff of a state school could be made public. It shows how little he understands investigative journalism, which is Hannah-Jones’ area of expertise.

Along with her rich body of work, that expertise gained Hannah-Jones recognition in the North Carolina Media & Journalism Hall of Fame.

As of late Friday night, it appeared the Board of Trustees failed to meet a deadline set by Hannah-Jones’ legal counsel to either vote on tenure or face a federal lawsuit for discrimination.

SEE ALSO:

‘Act Of Political Cowardice’: Chapel Hill Community Rallies After Journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones Denied Tenure

Nikole Hannah-Jones Wins Pulitzer Prize For ‘1619 Project’ Essay About Slavery

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