In May of 2021, Nikole Hannah-Jones was hired as the Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism at UNC-Chapel Hill, a position which up until her appointment has included tenure. But what was it that disqualified Hannah-Jones from receiving the honor of tenure? Was it the fact that she had a doctoral degree where previous tenured Knight Chairs did not? Was it that she’s already a popular and accomplished professor at UNC (which also happens to be her alma mater)? Or her 2020 Pulitzer prize-winning writing on the 1619 Project? Or was it that fact that award-winning investigative journalism about race written by a Black woman made powerful UNC figures uncomfortable?
The decision was mainly attributed to Richard Stevens, Robert Blouin, and Kevin Guskiewicz — chair of the board, executive vice president and provost and chancellor, respectively. And it was influenced, at least in part, by Walter Hussman, publisher for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and large donor to the Hussman School of Media and Journalism at UNC who made his dislike of Hannah-Jones very clear in emails to UNC officials, including those listed above.
One of the most common complaints made by figures like Hussman is that her work, such as the 1619 Project, is controversial and too biased to be considered good investigative journalism. However, bias is inherent in journalism — it’s everywhere, from picking what decides to be covered to how it should be covered. Therefore, it would be wrong to imply that any journalism could be truly impartial. Everyone has bias, and to argue that there can be an “objective” perspective that is void of opinion is harmful to good journalism. Hussman’s valuing of “objectivity” over anti-racism is rooted in white supremacy because objectivity, as Hannah-Jones argues, values a white perspective. When on the NPR 1A talk show, she said: “When white Americans say to me, ‘I just want factual reporting, what they’re saying to me is they want reporting from a white perspective … with a white normative view, and that simply has never been objective.”
Hussman further argues that Hannah-Jones’ work would distract from the core values of the UNC school of journalism, writing “I worry about the controversy of tying the UNC journalism school to the 1619 project … My hope and vision was that the journalism school would be the champion of objective, impartial reporting and separating news and opinion, and that would add so much to its reputation and would benefit both the school and the University …Instead, I fear this possible and needless controversy will overshadow it.” His statements imply that the anti-racist work by Hannah-Jones is a “needless controversy” when in reality it is vital work.
The actions and statements made by Hussman are just one instance representative of systemic racism within the UNC school system. A system that has consistently swept the actions of racist stakeholders under the rug while suppressing the voices and ignoring the needs of students and faculty of color. In a report made by the UNC System Racial Equality Task Force published in December 2020, over half of students, faculty, and staff felt that the leadership within the UNC System is “not very diverse” or “not diverse at all.” Hussman’s definition of objectivity excludes Black perspectives, or any perspective that does not align with his version of the truth, and demonstrates the harmful effects of lack of diversity in leadership.
If your objectivity actively reduces Black voices and contributions, perhaps you don’t value perspectives that don’t look like your own. The people in power write the history books and will always view their actions through the rose-tinted glasses of self-justification. For these reasons, viewing American history from a Black perspective is a more honest reflection of our country’s roots and its future. Good, “objective” journalism involves acknowledging one’s own inherent bias and actively challenging it rather than denying its existence. In voting “no” to Hannah-Jones’ opportunity for tenure, the board denied her based on her practice of honest journalism, and that is entirely unjust.
The move made by top university officials at UNC, including individuals on the board of trustees, is an abuse of power directly silencing Black voices and pursuits. A Black journalist should not have to choose between calling out and deconstructing white supremacy or excelling in her career. As UNC Student Body President Lamar Richards said in his address to these university officials, UNC has seen its fair share of scandals and this recent denial of tenure is to be added to the list.
Their initial denial of tenure led to Hannah-Jones taking another position at Howard University, costing the UNC System yet another valuable member. In regards to her decision, Hannah-Jones said on a CBS This Morning broadcast: “It’s not my job to heal the University of North Carolina. That’s the job of the people in power who created the situation in the first place.” UNC should take this loss as an opportunity to reassess their role in the anti-racist movement and their responsibility to protect specifically students, faculty and staff of color.
The work done by Hannah-Jones and other anti-racist scholars needs to be uplifted and amplified to disrupt the white-washed education primarily received at these institutions and to aid in making students of color feel represented. As a UNC community, we need to continue to support any actions pushing for systemic change, groups demanding equality, and the dismantling of white supremacy within our institutions.
In the interest of full disclosure, this Op-Ed was written by two white women, and we have no intention of speaking over the plethora of more knowledgeable voices of People of Color who have already spoken out about these issues and others like them. We implore that readers visit the links listed throughout including the 1619 Project as well as listening to, learning from, and supporting Black student activist groups and leaders like Lamar Richards, who are already doing the work.
– Hannah Cullen and Isabella King with the Climate Action Collaborative (ClimACT)