After months of debate and a three-hour special meeting Wednesday, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s board of trustees voted 9–4 to approve tenure for Nikole Hannah-Jones, the leading author of the New York Times’s “1619 Project.”
Some demonstrators congregated inside to watch the board meeting, which was supposed to be a closed-door session. However, this information was reportedly not communicated to the student body, so police officers had to forcibly remove those who refused to leave, according to the student newspaper Daily Tar Heel.
“Today’s outcome and the actions of the past month are about more than just me,” Hannah-Jones said in a statement. “This fight is about ensuring the journalistic and academic freedom of Black writers, researchers, teachers, and students.”
The vote comes a day before Hannah-Jones had originally been scheduled to start teaching at UNC Chapel Hill’s Hussman School of Journalism and Media as the Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism. The 1619 Project spearhead, however, insisted on not joining the faculty without tenure.
The university’s board of trustees first declined Hannah-Jones’ tenure bid in May, citing concerns about awarding tenure to someone from a nonacademic background. Amid mounting pressure from outside and within the campus community, the board eventually reversed its stance and agreed to vote on the matter.
Among a minority opposing the tenured appointment for Hannah-Jones was Walter E. Hussman Jr., a UNC megadonor after whom the Hussman School of Journalism and Media is named. According to emails obtained by online magazine The Assembly, Hussman told university leaders that he worried about “the controversy of tying the UNC journalism school to the 1619 Project.”
“I find myself more in agreement with Pulitzer prize winning historians like James McPherson and Gordon Wood than I do Nikole Hannah-Jones,” Hussman reportedly wrote in one of the emails. As prominent scholars of American Civil War and American Revolution, respectively, McPherson and Wood not only disputed the 1619 Project’s portrayal of historical events, but also demanded the New York Times to correct the project’s inaccuracies and fallacies.
In May 2020, Hannah-Jones was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for her work on the 1619 Project, which aims to “reframe American history” by presenting the United States as an inherently racist nation founded on slavery. The project consists of a collection of essays that argue, among many other controversial claims, that the real reason for the American Revolution was to preserve slavery, and that slavery was the source of American economic growth in the 19th century.
The idea that racism remains deeply embedded in today’s America, as Hannah-Jones claims in her essays, gained prominence during last year’s nationwide unrest. After a New York Post op-ed, “Call Them the 1619 Riots,” associated the widespread looting, statue-toppling, and flag-burning with the 1619 Project’s flawed history narrative, Hannah-Jones said “it would be an honor” that the mobs carried out violence under the 1619 banner.
It’s not immediately clear when Hannah-Jones will start her teaching career at UNC Chapel Hill.