Nikole Hannah-Jones told the University of North Carolina it was too little, too late. Howard University has welcomed her with open arms. The HBCU announced Hannah-Jones will be joining them as their first Knight Chair in Race and Journalism.
“I am so incredibly honored to be joining one of the most important and storied educational institutions in our country and to work alongside the illustrious faculty of the Cathy Hughes School of Communications and the brilliant students it draws in,” Hannah-Jones said in a statement. “One of my few regrets is that I did not attend Howard as an undergraduate, and so coming here to teach fulfills a dream I have long carried.”
Wayne A. I. Frederick, MD, MBA, president of Howard University, said that the hiring of Hannah-Jones marked 2021, as an important time in the school’s history.
“At such a critical time for race relations in our country, it is vital that we understand the role of journalism in steering our national conversation and social progress,” said Dr. Frederick. “Not only must our newsrooms reflect the communities where they are reporting, but we need to infuse the profession with diverse talent.”
Hannah-Jones said she’s up to the challenge.
“In the storied tradition of the Black press, the Center for Journalism and Democracy will help produce journalists capable of accurately and urgently covering the challenges of our democracy with a clarity, skepticism, rigor, and historical dexterity that is too often missing from today’s journalism,” Hannah-Jones said.
The announcement also noted that renowned writer Ta-Nehisi Coates accepted a faculty position at Howard’s College of Arts and Sciences.
MacArthur provided a $5 million grant to support the Center for Journalism and Democracy with $1.25 million of the funding dedicated to supporting the next phase of The 1619 Project, Knight contributed $5 million to establish an endowment at the HBCU to support a Knight Chair in Race and Journalism and develop symposia to support journalism students and faculty across the network of HBCUs, directed by the Knight Chair. Ford gave $5 million for “general operating support” for the center’s creation, which will be led by Hannah-Jones. Ford officials stated that their funding is to help support the center’s infrastructure programs designed to increase the number of Black professionals entering journalism and provide career-readiness.
Both Hannah-Jones and Coates were MacArthur Fellows (Hannah-Jones in 2017 and Coates in 2015).
In a statement, MacArthur Foundation President John Palfrey said 2021 called for supporting a journalist like Hannah-Jones.
“We are proud to support the visionary work and leadership of Nikole Hannah-Jones,” said Palfrey. “This is a moment of inflection on the impact of race and racism in the United States and around the world. Hannah-Jones’ twin passions of investing in the next generation of Black journalists and her tireless quest for the U.S. to confront and repair the enduring legacy of slavery through the 1619 Project will now have a home at Howard University.”
Hannah-Jones’ 1619 Project sought to present how America was founded just as much, if not more, on institutional racism as it was on the U.S. Constitution. The number 1619 points to the year when the first enslaved Africans landed on soon-to-be American soil. The project was the subject of disdain for many conservatives who believed that it was “divisive” and they have used state governments to try and suppress teachings based on the project in schools.
Hannah-Jones recently rejected a proposed tenured position at the University of North Carolina Hussman School of Journalism amid controversy. She was initially denied tenure and offered a five-year contract despite being named a Knight Chair.
One of the biggest supporters against her tenure was, according to Assembly––a North Carolina-based online magazine––newspaper publisher Walter Hussman, Jr. who donated $25 million to the school, which was named after him in 2019.
The news disappointed Hannah-Jones who said she wanted to attend UNC all her life, got her chance, was successful there and then thwarted when asking for a higher position.
“I have loved the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill since I was a child watching Tar Heels basketball on television,” Hannah-Jones said in a statement. “Two decades ago, in 2001, I learned that not only had I been accepted into the master’s program at the journalism school at UNC, but that I had received a full-tuition Park Fellowship. I cried from joy. I could not believe how lucky I was to get the chance to learn journalism at a place I had so long revered.”
Hannah-Jones said that the school had been good to her during her time there. She was honored with a Young Alumni Award and the Distinguished Alumna Award in 2019 and gave the journalism school’s commencement address in 2017. In 2020, she was inducted into the North Carolina Media Hall of Fame.
But, based on the actions of university officials, those accomplishments weren’t taken into account.
Hannah-Jones said that she’d submitted her tenure package to the school’s Promotion and Tenure committee on two separate occasions, but the application was pulled from review with no explanation as to why and with no explanation from UNC Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz and UNC Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost Robert Blouin.
When the school hired her anyway, it still received some blowback. In a piece written on the James G. Martin Center For Academic Renewal’s website in May, conservative journalist Shannon Watkins called Hannah-Jones’ credentials into question and said that her hiring “raised serious red flags as to how the university’s being run.”
“The tendency toward groupthink has become a prevailing problem within many university departments, and faculty may be tempted to choose colleagues by ideology rather than academic credentials,” wrote Watkins. “Given this high degree of politicization inside the academy, it is imperative that, at public institutions that exist for the good of all the people, there must be some sort of outside review to prevent the appointment of unsuitable candidates such as Hannah-Jones.” The previous week, Jay Schalin wrote on the website that Hannah-Jones’ signaled a “degradation of journalism standards.”
The James G. Martin Center For Academic Renewal, a higher education-centered nonprofit, was formerly named after conservative political donor Art Pope who currently serves on UNC’s board of governors. The board’s responsible for creating the center.
Hannah-Jones noted that the piece was written and published before the public knew she’d been hired without the approval of her tenure. After a public fight, the university finally offered her tenure only for Hannah-Jones to reject it.
“Journalism has a tangible effect on communities and cultural narratives, so we are thrilled to support the Pulitzer Prize-winner Nikole Hannah-Jones, Ta-Nehisi Coates, and this legendary institution in fostering the next generation of Black journalists,” stated Ford Foundation President Darren Walker. “As our news and information rapidly change, the media must do more to diversify the ranks of newsroom decision makers who determine the stories that are told.