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The Effect Of Nikole Hannah-Jones' Tenure Denial On Black Faculty, Staff And Students


The stakes have heightened in a battle between New York Times Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones and the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. The journalist was hired as a professor at the university but has been effectively denied tenure so far. This week, her legal team informed the university that she will not join the faculty unless she is offered that guarantee. This fight has had ripple effects. Black faculty members, staff and students have left the school since the controversy began, and more say they will follow suit. Joining us now is Dawna Jones. She is the chair of the Carolina Black Caucus, a group of black faculty members, students and alumni at UNC Chapel Hill.


DAWNA JONES: Thank you so much for having me.

CHANG: Thanks for being with us. So exactly how many members of Carolina's Black Caucus right now are talking about leaving the school?

JONES: Yeah, I mean, we've heard from several members. I can say for myself, I've heard from at least 40 individual people who are faculty and staff members here at Carolina who are considering their options right now. I mean, some of them are actively searching outside of the institution. Some of them are just trying to figure out their next steps. But I've heard from at least 40 individual faculty and staff members of the Carolina Black Caucus about this issue.

CHANG: And how much of that desire to leave preceded the effective denial of tenure to Nikole Hannah-Jones?

JONES: Sure. Yeah. So, you know, I think a lot of what we're seeing right now is still fallout from Silent Sam. You know, just a few years ago, our university was in a huge controversy over the Confederate monument that stood at the front steps of our institution. And we went from everywhere from building a building to a house it, which was going to cost millions of dollars, to a $2.5 million settlement to the Daughters of the Confederacy to give it back to them. And, you know, a lot of our institution, students, faculty, staff, community members alike, were very, very frustrated with how our institutional leadership handled that situation.

CHANG: And I also understand that burnout has been cited as a reason for a lot of faculty members of color wanting to leave. Is that right? This is based on some reporting from WUNC, one of NPR's member stations.

JONES: Absolutely. I mean, our Black faculty and our faculty of color are in a unique situation. You know, they're asked to do their research. They're teaching. They're ready to go through the tenure process and preparing for that. But because there are so few of them, so few of us here on campus, students flock to them in a different way than some of our majority faculty members experience. And so there's extra time, there's extra emotional burden there to be the only. Some of them are literally the only one in their entire department who is a person of color or a Black person.

And so when a student finally sees you, they want your time. They want your energy. They want to be in your office hours. They want to have lunch and dinner because they haven't gotten that opportunity in the past. I've heard from several of our undergraduate students who are so excited about the potential for Nikole Hannah-Jones because some of them have never been taught by a Black faculty member. And I think that is really incredible to consider in 2021, right?

CHANG: Absolutely. I am curious, what are you hearing from individual Black students about this whole controversy so far and how the controversy around Nikole Hannah-Jones's tenure is affecting their view of UNC Chapel Hill at this point?

JONES: Yeah. You know, the one thing I'm hearing that's a resounding from all of our students is embarrassment. They are embarrassed to be in the news yet again for their institution. I'm hearing from young alumni for their alma mater. You know, a lot of them and a lot of us love Carolina. And it's just sad and embarrassing to continue to be in the news for negative things. Like I said before, you know, a lot of our students were really excited about the opportunity to learn from Nikole Hannah-Jones. And they're feeling like, you know, this is just another way that they aren't being appreciated and valued and respected as students, because this is the kind of experience that they were hoping for, a lot of them. And even from young alumni, I've heard from some of our Black (inaudible) alumni who said, you know, I was ready to come and reenroll, take a class just to be able to sit there and absorb information and knowledge from Nikole Hannah-Jones, who is a giant in her field, right?


JONES: And so it's really sad to me that we are here yet again.

CHANG: Well, how does UNC Chapel Hill come back from this, in your view? What are members of the Carolina Black Caucus asking for now in the name of equity, in the name of inclusion, beyond simply giving Nikole Hannah-Jones tenure?

JONES: You know, right now, we think that tenure is the first step. We want this situation resolved with tenure, right? We want Nikole Hannah-Jones to be able to come here. And I think what she ultimately wants is to be back at her alma mater and share her skills and talents. And that's what we want. But in addition to that, you know, we want to see a financial commitment to faculty recruitment and retention. We want to see an additional financial commitment to our diversity and inclusion space. I know we have a new chief diversity officer coming in and we want to see that person set up for success.

And then, of course, we want to see a commitment to continuing to recruit and retain Black faculty, Black staff and students. But we can't do that without changing the climate, right? And so what our ultimate expectation is is that our leadership take a deep dive into what they're hearing from us right now. Listen to what our students are saying. Listen to what Black faculty and staff have been saying for years. Take heed and make change.

CHANG: Dawna Jones is chair of the Carolina Black Caucus and assistant dean of students at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

Thank you very much for joining us today.

JONES: Thank you so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.
Christopher Intagliata
Christopher Intagliata is an editor at All Things Considered, where he writes news and edits interviews with politicians, musicians, restaurant owners, scientists and many of the other voices heard on the air.
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