UNC protesters cite ongoing frustrations amid tenure dispute

Students are demanding tenure for Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones

Discontent over how Black students, faculty and staff have been treated for years at North Carolina’s flagship public university is reemerging after the school refused to offer tenure to a prominent investigative journalist who’s won awards for her work on systemic racism.

On Friday, several hundred students at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill gathered on a quad near the chancellor’s office to demand that trustees reconsider tenure for Nikole Hannah-Jones, who won a Pulitzer Prize for her work on the 1619 Project examining the bitter legacy of slavery.

Demonstrators speaking through a bullhorn described years of frustrations over Black students’ treatment on campus and held signs with messages including “1619 … 2021. Same Struggle,” and “I can give you 1,619 reasons why Hannah-Jones should be tenured.”

Demonstrators gather Friday, June 25, 2021, on University of North Carolina campus in Chapel Hill, N.C., to demand that the university offer tenure to award-winning investigative journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones. (AP Photo/Jonathan Drew)

A decision by trustees earlier this year to halt Hannah-Jones’ tenure submission, despite her predecessors receiving the distinction, sparked a torrent of criticism from within the community and ultimately revealed the depth of the frustration over the school’s failure to answer longstanding concerns. Hannah-Jones’ lawyers informed the school this week that she won’t join the faculty without tenure.

The Carolina Black Caucus, a faculty group, reported after a meeting last week that a growing number of its members are considering leaving the school, prompting Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz to call for a meeting with caucus leaders.

“The morale is low,” said Patricia Harris, vice chairman of the caucus and director of recruitment for the school of education.

“This is not an isolated incident. It’s exacerbated what we’ve been seeing across campus, and even across the country when it comes to Black faculty, staff and students,” she said. “This is a systemic issue where the goal posts are constantly being moved for people of color.”

The caucus was founded in 1974, when Black students were demanding the creation of a center for an African American studies program. The Sonja Haynes Stone Center for Black Culture and History opened in 2004. That three-decade delay is part of a history of problems experienced by Black people who either worked at or attended UNC.

dissertation submitted to UNC in 2006 by then-Ph.D. candidate John K. Chapman pointed to struggles by the school’s Black staff members in the 1960s, in the early years after the school officially desegregated. In 1991, the UNC Housekeepers Association initiated a sustained struggle to address the persistence of Jim Crow employment practices at the university, leading to a legal victory in 1996 that provided raises, increased training and a formal acknowledgment of the contributions of Black workers to the university, Chapman wrote.

“While Chapel Hill is known far and wide as ‘the Southern Part of Heaven,’ black campus workers and community residents commonly see the university as ‘the Southern Part of Hell’ or ‘the plantation,’” Chapman wrote. “This has to do with the university’s long history of white supremacy and its role as the dominant institution and main employer in Chapel Hill.”

In this May 21, 2016, file photo, Nikole Hannah-Jones attends the 75th Annual Peabody Awards Ceremony at Cipriani Wall Street in New York. (Photo by Evan Agostini/Invision/AP, File)

In 2019, the campus was roiled by a Confederate statue that had stood for years. Protesters toppled “Silent Sam,” but disputes over what to do with it led the chancellor at the time to resign and the campus police chief to retire. Under a legal settlement, the statue was turned over to a group of Confederate descendants.

In the current controversy, Hannah-Jones accepted a five-year contract to join the journalism school’s faculty as the Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism after her tenure application stalled. The trustee who vets tenure applications chose in January to postpone review of Hannah-Jones’ submission because of questions about her nonacademic background, said Richard Stevens, the chairman of the board of trustees for the Chapel Hill campus. It was never brought before the full board for approval.

Student body President Lamar Richards, who’s also a trustee, formally requested this week that the board convene a special meeting no later than Wednesday to vote on tenure for Hannah-Jones.

“This is so much deeper than tenure,” Richards said in an interview. “People of color have been disrespected at this university for so long that are academics. Even if she came here, she’d still be disrespected. Tenure does not guarantee respect. But what it does, it protects her work and that she’s able to teach it the way she wants to teach it at Carolina.”

In an interview before Friday’s demonstration, Black Student Movement President and rising junior Taliajah Vann said it’s difficult for Black students to feel valued when there are few Black professors.

“I’ve had two Black professors in my entire time at Carolina so far,” she said. “So (university leaders) think that I’m a great student and I deserve to be here, but you don’t think that professors who look like me should be in the classroom teaching me? It’s incredibly inappropriate.”

Jasmé Kelly, a 1995 UNC graduate who’s Black, said recruiting and keeping talented Black faculty has been a problem since she was a student, and she can’t blame faculty or students who don’t want to stay.

“Why would someone go where they’re not wanted?” she said. “We’re losing talent. We’re losing opportunities, and the state doesn’t care.”

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