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A Reporter Weighs In On UNC's Decision To Deny Nikole Hannah-Jones Tenure

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Nikole Hannah-Jones has a Pulitzer Prize and a MacArthur genius grant. She also reportedly had the enthusiastic support of the faculty at the University of North Carolina Journalism School, but she will not be receiving a tenured position there at her alma mater. The reason, according to NC Policy Watch, is political pressure that conservative groups put on the very highest levels of university governance. Joe Killian helped report this story for NC Policy Watch and joins us now.

Good to have you here.

JOE KILLIAN: Thank you.

SHAPIRO: Explain what the objection is and who it's coming from.

KILLIAN: Well, Nikole Hannah-Jones, over the course of her career, has done a terrific amount of reporting about race in America. As part of this, she conceived The 1619 Project, which has been incredibly controversial among conservatives. And this has led to some real trepidation among conservatives, including elected Republicans in the state and conservative groups in the state as to whether she should be a professor at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill.

SHAPIRO: Your reporting establishes that there was widespread faculty support for her hire, including from the school's chancellor. Is it common to see a university's highest level of management exert so much say in a single professor being hired on a tenure track?

KILLIAN: The board of trustees has the final approval on approval of tenure. This is not a tenure track position. This is a tenured position. It's a Knight Chair. And - but it is unusual for a candidate to get all the way through the process with this level of support and support of the chancellor and then to find it not happen and it being quite this way, which is that the board didn't even vote. And our understanding from talking to members of the board who spoke to us on background is that conversations were had outside of meetings that indicated to the chancellor and to the administration and to the dean of the school that this tenure would not be approved, and therefore, they would need to hire her as a contract employee for five years if they wanted to hire her at all.

SHAPIRO: The board of trustees also spoke publicly about their decision today. Here's chair Richard Stevens.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RICHARD STEVENS: In his communication to the provost, trustee Duckett asked questions regarding the tenure candidacy of Nikole Hannah-Jones and suggested more time and postponed the review to consider those questions.

SHAPIRO: So what he seems to be saying here is that this is a postponement, not an outright denial of tenure. Can you just help us understand what he is saying here?

KILLIAN: He is saying that one of the members of the board asked for more time to review her, to vet her, and that before that could happen, before they got more time and postponed this, the dean of the journalism school went ahead and hired her under a five-year contract, which essentially put an end to the tenure debate. It didn't go any farther at the board of trustees level because it didn't need to. Somebody hired under a five-year contract doesn't need to be approved by the board of trustees. That is - that contradicts the account of the dean and of people who are involved in the direct negotiations.

SHAPIRO: And just in a sentence or two, has Nikole Hannah-Jones herself said anything about this?

KILLIAN: She's been very quiet this week. On Twitter, she just said to people who have been supporting her that she's watching, and she sees all of them, and she appreciates it.

SHAPIRO: Joe Killian is an investigative reporter for NC Policy Watch.

Thank you.

KILLIAN: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF D.P. KAUFMAN'S "BRAVERY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.