Statement on the UNC Board and Nikole Hannah-Jones

On behalf of the American Association of University Professors, we join faculty members and others across the country in condemning in the strongest possible terms the decision by the Board of Trustees of the University of North Carolina (UNC) to ignore the strong recommendation of the university's journalism faculty to award tenure to Nikole Hannah-Jones, appointed as the Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism. Arbitrary governing board intervention in an individual faculty hiring decision is almost always a gross violation of principles of shared governance and academic freedom. This action is all the more egregious because the target of the board’s intervention is a prominent Black woman closely associated with a pathbreaking effort to educate Americans about the consequences of slavery and our country's ongoing history of racial inequality.

Previous Knight chairs were tenured, and the board has offered no explanation for its decision to ignore the strong recommendations of both the faculty and the campus administration. At a time when bills seeking to suppress teaching about race, oppression, and gender are proliferating in the states, the unrebutted assumption must be that the board was motivated by concerns about Hannah-Jones's work on the New York Times's Pulitzer Prize-winning "1619 Project" and that its intervention was therefore not only inappropriate but racist and blatantly political, linked to a wider attack on teaching and learning about the role of racism in the history of the United States.

In the 1920s, when lawmakers proposed banning the teaching of evolution in the state, the University of North Carolina fought back, defending academic freedom. A century later, it’s distressing to see the university’s trustees taking the opposite tack. Political and racist intervention in teaching and faculty hiring has no place in higher education.

Tenure exists to protect academic freedom. Contrary to popular belief, tenure is neither a guarantee of lifetime employment nor an honor reserved for an elite.  As stated in the  foundational 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure, jointly formulated by the AAUP and the Association of American Colleges and Universities, tenure is a guarantee of academic freedom "indispensable to the success of an institution."

It is the faculty’s responsibility to evaluate a candidate for tenure and the faculty’s decision should normally be upheld by the board. This foundational principle of shared governance is articulated in the AAUP’s 1966 Statement on Government of Colleges and Universities, jointly formulated by the AAUP, the American Council on Education, and the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges and widely acknowledged as the standard by which governance of higher education institutions should be assessed, as follows:

Faculty status and related matters are primarily a faculty responsibility; this area includes appointments, reappointments, decisions not to reappoint, promotions, the granting of tenure, and dismissal. The primary responsibility of the faculty for such matters is based upon the fact that its judgment is central to general educational policy. . . .  The governing board and president should, on questions of faculty status, as in other matters where the faculty has primary responsibility, concur with the faculty judgment except in rare instances and for compelling reasons which should be stated in detail.

We call on the UNC board to immediately reverse its mistaken move to withhold tenure and accept the faculty's recommendation that Nikole Hannah-Jones be appointed to the Knight chair with tenure.

Irene Mulvey, AAUP President
Henry Reichman, Chair, AAUP Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure

Publication Date: 
Thursday, May 27, 2021