Free Speech

1619 Project Author Nikole Hannah-Jones Denied Tenure at UNC-Chapel Hill

The surprising move raises concerns about academic freedom.


Nikole Hannah-Jones is a New York Times reporter and lead author of the 1619 Project, an award-winning investigative effort that came under serious criticism. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill recently selected her to be Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism as well.

But this appointment has come with controversy. It was expected that Hannah-Jones would be granted a tenure-track position; instead, she received a non-tenured five-year appointment, with an option for tenure once it expires. According to the Times, UNC-Chapel Hill's board of trustees has some say over this outcome, and may have been motivated to deny Hannah-Jones tenure due to conservatives' objections to her work. (The board of trustees is indirectly influenced by the state's Republican-controlled legislature.)

Hannah-Jones has become something of a lightning rod: While the 1619 Project attracted considerable praise—even winning a Pulitzer Prize—many historians (and not just those on the political right) have objected to both the project's framing and certain claims that it makes. Hannah-Jones has not always engaged these critics in good faith.

That said, it's clear the faculty within the journalism department wished for this to be a tenured position, and that it's rare for the trustees to overrule the faculty's wishes in matters such as this. Hannah-Jones is eminently qualified to teach race in journalism, and while all the details are not known, it's hard to escape the conclusion that she was punished for expressing a politically disfavored viewpoint.

"If it is accurate that this refusal was the result of viewpoint discrimination against Hannah-Jones, particularly based on political opposition to her appointment, this decision has disturbing implications for academic freedom, which is vital in allowing faculty members to voice divergent views and in avoiding casting what the Supreme Court called a 'pall of orthodoxy' over the classroom," wrote the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education's Adam Steinbaugh. "When decisions on academic tenure incorporate a form of political litmus test, this freedom is gravely compromised."