Tenure protects free speech. Racism threatens to undo it

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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