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UNC-Chapel Hill Trustees To Vote On Nikole Hannah-Jones' Tenure


Nikole Hannah-Jones of The New York Times has been granted tenure at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The board of trustees had declined to vote on her candidacy earlier this spring, which led to a national debate about race, academic freedom and the journalism of Hannah-Jones. Decision on her tenure had become wrapped up in the controversy over The New York Times' "1619 Project." It was a look at the legacy of American slavery. NPR's David Folkenflik has been covering the story and joins us now.

Hi, David.


CHANG: So just remind us what led to this vote, this moment today.

FOLKENFLIK: Well, as you suggested, there was essentially a pocket veto exercised by the board of trustees for UNC Chapel Hill. And they didn't consider a - her proposal for her to get tenure, which, you know, once you've got the department involved, the journalism school involved, the dean and the provost of the university, it's an extraordinary step for trustees not even to vote on it, much less turn it down. In this case, you saw protests build and an outcry on campus, particularly but not limited to Black faculty members and students. A lot of other folks as well involved here, questions of academic freedom, questions of whether this was really punishment for Hannah-Jones' work on the "1619 Project," which placed slavery and its legacy in American society so much at the center of our nation's history and our nation's present.

CHANG: Well, she has gotten tenure now. What is Hannah-Jones personally said so far about this decision to grant her tenure?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, she just came out with a statement some minutes ago released by the NAACP Legal and Educational Defense Fund, which has been supporting her in this and which threatened a lawsuit on her behalf had she not received tenure. She expressed great thanks to those who had worked on her behalf, but she said that this is a fight not just about her. It's a fight for the right for students and faculty to be able to explore issues, particularly of race, openly and with the liberty to reach, you know, uncomfortable conclusions and that she - this was very interesting and ambiguous language - needed to figure out what the best path forward was. And that is she didn't 100% commit to showing up this fall in campus, which she said she wouldn't do had she not received tenure. Obviously, this has been a tough and bruising process, even as she seems to delight in the outcome that we heard today.

CHANG: Very interesting - this has been an incredibly dramatic tenure process. Why do you think it has captured so much national attention?

FOLKENFLIK: I think we have to put this in the context of the social equity movement that we saw play out in the streets of America over the past - call it - 14 months in particular, the calls for justice, the calls for our understanding of how systems work that takes place in the streets, that took place in corporate boardrooms. It took place in newsrooms. And so you saw sort of a stretching of the boundaries of what standard journalism allows in expression on social media but in terms of how we define stories, who we view as authoritative sources and the like.

That issue played out at the journalism school's appointment in part because its name donor - that is the guy after whom this journalism school is named, Walter Hussman - has a much more traditional, Hannah-Jones would say white view of how journalism should work with sort of an idea that you don't lead people to conclusions. You just sort of set out the facts. Let them create their own decisions. She has placed race so much at the center of the American story and the legacy of slavery that it has been uncomfortable for a lot of folks and as a result, has really caused friction with some of her critics.

CHANG: Well, last week, I spoke to the chair of the Carolina Black Caucus at UNC Chapel Hill, who told us that this whole saga with Hannah-Jones has been very embarrassing and demoralizing for Black students and faculty at UNC. So what do you think, David? What do you think this tenure decision now means for the university as an institution?

FOLKENFLIK: I think for the short term, there's relief that academic freedom of its faculty seem to be respected, for African Americans in particular, that such an incredibly lauded figure on a national level will be joining their ranks. And at the same time, I think UNC will remain something as a political football for cultural conservatives and for people in North Carolina itself.

CHANG: That is NPR's David Folkenflik.

Thank you, David.

FOLKENFLIK: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Folkenflik was described by Geraldo Rivera of Fox News as "a really weak-kneed, backstabbing, sweaty-palmed reporter." Others have been kinder. The Columbia Journalism Review, for example, once gave him a "laurel" for reporting that immediately led the U.S. military to institute safety measures for journalists in Baghdad.