Tenure protects free speech. Racism threatens to undo it

By: | May 26, 2021

Bowing to pressure from conservatives, the board overseeing the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill denied tenure to journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones, lead author and director of The 1619 Project, a special issue of The New York Times Magazine that commemorated the 400-year anniversary of the arrival of 20 enslaved Africans who were sold into slavery to the shores of Virginia.

Hannah-Jones is the incoming Knight Chair — a professorship endowed by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. It’s a position that typically comes with the job security of tenure. In lieu of tenure, the university offered Hannah-Jones a five-year contract, which can be renewed at the end of the term.

The danger of the board’s action on her tenure — which the faculty and tenure committee voted to grant her — extends beyond the individual fight over Hannah-Jones’ position. The board’s rejection is an affront to faculty, students and anyone who values academic freedom, good governance, the role of the Fourth Estate in American democracy, and truth itself.

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