The surprise is not that Nikole Hannah-Jones turned down tenure at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The surprise was that it took so long.
The Pulitzer Prize-winning contributor to the 1619 Project and MacArthur Fellowship was offered an appointment at the Hussman School of Journalism without tenure. As everyone else who had been offered that same appointment had been granted tenure, Hannah-Jones was taken aback.
As was a lot of people in media circles, who quickly rallied behind her even as conservative critics used the fresh discourse to complain that the 1619 Project (which helps re-contextualize America’s history via its racism) is unpatriotic.
A larger question loomed mostly unasked: Why would you want to work for an organization that didn’t offer you the basics of your position? As a well-known journalist and much-loved online figure, Nikola-Jones would seemingly have many, many more career opportunities ahead of her, one that wouldn’t require a trial in the court of public opinion. Sure, she got her masters degree from UNC, but that’s like saying you have to go back to teach at the high school from which you graduated.
Like all those LGBTQ+ couples who get annoyed when homophobic bakeries refuse them, instead of just supporting gay-owned bakeries from the start, the whole situation seemed likely to end unsatisfactorily, with the bad guys bending just enough to get what they want while making clear they don’t think it’s really worth the getting.
So after some legal wrangling, the board of trustees voted 9-4 to approve her tenure. At the time, Board Vice Chair Gene Davis called the vote “an important step in creating an even better university.”
For her part, Hannah-Jones released a statement that read, “This fight is about ensuring the journalistic and academic freedom of Black writers, researchers, teachers and students We must ensure that our work is protected and able to proceed free from the risk of repercussions, and we are not there yet.
“I need to take some time to process all that has occurred and determine what is the best way forward.”
“Every other chair before me, who also happened to be white, received that position with tenure,” Hannah-Jones said during an interview on Good Morning America. “To have that vote occur on the last possible day after threat of legal action, after weeks of protests… it’s just not something that I want anymore.”
What she later clarified was that she watched live coverage of student protests the day of the tenure vote and saw Black students pushed out of rooms by police officers. That moment cemented for her that she no longer had any interest in accepting a job at UNC.
Instead she will join the faculty at Howard University, where she will lead a new center for Journalism and Democracy with author Ta-Nehisi Coates, where they will address “the challenges of our democracy with a clarity, skepticism, rigor and historical dexterity that is too often missing from today’s journalism.”
A lot of ink has been spilled over the last year about respecting oneself enough to walk away from a bad situation, be it a toxic workplace or Republican relatives. But the instinct is always there to appease in some way. That Nikola-Jones fought so hard for something and then turned it down is a lesson in grit and dignity—we can walk away from the things we thought we wanted, even if we might feel sheepish afterward. Because look what came out of this situation: Not just a job, but an entire new center dedicated to bringing rigor back to journalism.
That’s a win, no matter your politics.
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