Nikole Hannah-Jones, Ta-Nehisi Coates to join Howard University faculty
"Hannah-Jones said she would not join faculty of UNC-Chapel Hill after tenure controversy
The surprising development came less than a week after trustees for the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill voted to award tenure to Hannah-Jones. Initially, the public university hired her as a professor without the job-protection status. But its board of trustees approved tenure for her on Wednesday, after faculty and students at Chapel Hill protested that she had been mistreated.
In an interview Tuesday on CBS This Morning, Hannah-Jones said she would not join the UNC faculty.
Now Hannah-Jones will have tenure at Howard in the new position of Knight Chair in Race and Journalism, starting this summer at the historically Black university in Washington.
“I am so incredibly honored to be joining one of the most important and storied educational institutions in our country … ” 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.”
Hannah-Jones will also found a Center for Journalism and Democracy at Howard. She said it will aim to train journalism students from historically Black schools to “accurately and urgently [cover] the challenges of our democracy with a clarity, skepticism, rigor and historical dexterity that is too often missing from today’s journalism.”
Coates, an award-winning author known for his work on topics including race and white supremacy, will be a writer-in-residence in the university’s College of Arts and Sciences, and hold the Sterling Brown Chair in the English department. He said in an interview he plans to teach a class in creative writing next year.
“That really is the community that made me,” Coates said. “I would not be who I am without the faculty at Howard.”
Coates also has plans to finish his bachelor’s degree, which he started at Howard in 1993. He hasn’t picked a major but said he’d like to learn more about math, science and economics.
Both appointments are supported by nearly $20 million in donations from an anonymous donor, as well as the Knight Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, and the Ford Foundation, officials said. The new additions come at a critical time for race relations in the United States, said Howard President Wayne A.I. Frederick.
“The both of them are, I would say, elite public intellectuals, both of whom are Black and I think have been weighing and participating in the narrative about America and its evolution,” Frederick said.
The twin hires represent an extraordinary coup for Howard. Coates and Hannah-Jones are highly regarded writers who have each produced high-impact work on urgent questions about race in America. Each, too, has received a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant.
Coates won a National Book Award in 2015 for the nonfiction work “Between the World and Me,” an exploration of violence against Black people and white supremacy in America written in the form of a letter to his son. He also is known for an influential 2014 article in the Atlantic magazine, “The Case for Reparations,” which argued that the nation should consider ways to compensate Black Americans for its long history of slavery and racial discrimination.
Hannah-Jones, a writer for the New York Times, last year won the Pulitzer Prize for commentary for her essay in the 1619 Project on slavery and history. She was the driving force behind the Times Magazine project, which sought to reexamine American history and the consequences of slavery starting with the arrival four centuries ago of enslaved African people in colonial Virginia. Hannah-Jones holds a bachelor’s degree from the University of Notre Dame and a master’s degree in journalism from UNC-Chapel Hill.
For the university, Tuesday’s announcement from Howard could provoke a bitter recrimination. The 30,000-student public university had announced in late April that Hannah-Jones would join its faculty in July as the Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism at the Hussman School of Journalism and Media. That position, like the one at Howard, would have been supported by the Knight Foundation.
But unlike previous Knight chairs at UNC, the initial appointment for Hannah-Jones as a journalism professor came through a five-year contract without tenure. UNC-Chapel Hill’s faculty and administrators had recommended tenure for her months earlier, but the board of trustees had not yet acted on that proposal, for reasons that were unclear.
Some reports indicated political concerns about the 1619 Project had led the trustees to delay action. Walter E. Hussman Jr., an Arkansas newspaper publisher and major UNC donor for whom the journalism school is named, raised questions about hiring Hannah-Jones, according to the news site the Assembly. Hussman denied influencing the school and said he did not threaten to withhold any donations.
Former president Donald Trump and other prominent Republicans have criticized the 1619 Project, saying it undermines patriotism and gives too much weight to issues of race and racism in American history.
The Republican-led legislature in North Carolina wields significant power over higher education in the state through appointments to the UNC system’s board of governors and UNC-Chapel Hill’s board of trustees.
Faculty, students and other supporters of Hannah-Jones said the case posed a threat to academic freedom and showed inequities in the treatment of Black women in academia. A highly regarded candidate for a chemistry faculty position at UNC-Chapel Hill, who is African American, withdrew from consideration in solidarity with Hannah-Jones.
Pressure grew on trustees to approve tenure for Hannah-Jones as her attorneys wrote in a June letter that she would not accept a position at Chapel Hill without it. The trustees met in closed session Wednesday to deliberate the case and approved tenure for Hannah-Jones on a public 9-4 vote.
Afterward, university officials praised Hannah-Jones and said they looked forward to welcoming her to campus as soon as possible. But Hannah-Jones signaled Wednesday that there could be further issues.
In a statement through her attorneys, she said that night: “Today’s outcome and the actions of the past month are about more than just me. This fight is about ensuring the journalistic and academic freedom of Black writers, researchers, teachers, and students. We must ensure that our work is protected and able to proceed free from the risk of repercussions, and we are not there yet. These last weeks have been very challenging and difficult and I need to take some time to process all that has occurred and determine what is the best way forward.”
UNC officials had been hopeful, after the trustee vote, that Hannah-Jones would accept a faculty position at Chapel Hill on new terms with tenure.
Hannah-Jones's full-time faculty appointment will be at Howard, according to Frederick. He said he built a relationship with the journalist through Coates. Frederick did not say for how long he discussed the appointment with Hannah-Jones, but said the situation at UNC presented an opportunity to bring her to the school of more than 9,000 students not far from Capitol Hill.
The appointments come at a moment of heightened visibility for historically Black universities. Vice President Harris is a Howard graduate. The university, founded two years after the end of the Civil War, and other HBCUs have also been creating new programs and academic centers, making high-profile hires and drawing an influx of donations. Many of the donations have set records and signaled to other potential donors that a sector of higher education long disenfranchised and marginalized is worthy of investment.
Hannah-Jones shared a similar sentiment.
“I hope that the decision that Ta-Nehisi and I made to bring our talents to an HBCU will lead others to make a similar choice,” she said."