Protests erupted at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill after the school’s board of trustees decided to not give tenure to Pulitzer prize-winning journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones, whose pioneering work on institutional racism includes the 1619 Project.
Demonstrators, many of them UNC faculty members, gathered at a board of trustees meeting on Thursday morning with signs in protest of the decision. Some chanted: “We will not be moved.”
Historians, activists, alumni, students and others have also expressed outrage about the board’s decision, which followed conservative activists complaints about the school’s decision to hire Hannah-Jones.
Bernice King, the minister and daughter of Martin Luther King Jr, said the decision was “shameful” on Twitter.
“Denying a tragic history won’t make it any less so,” King tweeted. “And grappling with it will help us challenge and change current pain and injustice.”
Hannah-Jones, who is Black, conceived of the New York Times Magazine’s The 1619 Project, which captures the origins and legacy of institutional racism in US history. The project has been a target for conservatives who have been on an aggressive campaign to restrict discussion about systemic racism in public discourse and in schools.
The MacArthur genius grant recipient went through the tenure process at the university’s journalism school after being appointed to its Knight chair in race and investigative journalism.
The journalism school’s dean, Susan King, said during the process, Hannah-Jones had enthusiastic support from faculty and the tenure committee in an interview with the progressive website NC Policy Watch. After the school’s board of trustees chose not to approve her tenure, King said: “It’s disappointing, it’s not what we wanted and I am afraid it will have a chilling effect.”
Hannah-Jones is instead going to be on a fixed five-year term and will have the option of being reviewed for tenure at the end of the period. The board, which at most universities tends to be more conservative than faculty, does not have to approve fixed-term positions.
Hannah-Jones appeared to respond to the controversy on Twitter on Thursday, writing: “I’ve been staying off of here today, but just know I see you all and I am grateful.”
Several UNC graduates and faculty members responded to her post, writing that they were “livid” and “horrified” by the decision.
More than 40 faculty members at the university’s Hussman School of Journalism signed a letter calling the decision a “failure” and demanding more information.
“The failure to offer Hannah-Jones tenure with her appointment as a Knight chair unfairly moves the goalposts and violates long-standing norms and established processes relating to tenure and promotion at UNC Chapel Hill,” they said in a letter also signed by more than 50 graduate-level students and faculty members from other schools at the university.
A UNC spokesperson, Joanne Peters Denny, said in a statement: “The details of individual faculty hiring processes are personnel protected information. The University is proud to host a Knight chair at our leading Hussman School of Journalism and Media and looks forward to welcoming Nikole Hannah-Jones to campus.”
Efforts to improve education about the history of racism in the US have seen aggressive pushback from conservatives.
The 1619 Project was a target of Donald Trump, who as president attacked the work and created a commission to promote “patriotic education”.
Earlier this month, Idaho banned critical race theory in public schools, without evidence that teachers there were teaching the theory, which states that racism is embedded both in US history and modern American law.
Despite these efforts to suppress history, this week, the oldest living survivor of the white supremacist massacre in Tulsa testified before Congress on Wednesday, after nearly a century of the event being largely ignored in US history education.
Viola Fletcher, 107, asked the country to acknowledge the attack which killed an estimated 300 Black people.
“Our country may forget this history but I cannot,” Fletcher said. “I will not and other survivors do not and our descendants do not.”