Nikole Hannah-Jones declined UNC’s tenure offer to begin a new tenured role at Howard University, where alum and writer Ta-Nehisi Coates will also join as a new faculty member. (Courtesy Photo)

By Micha Green
AFRO D.C. and Digital Editor
mgreen@afro.com

When Nikole Hannah-Jones was originally denied tenure while serving as a Knight Chair at her alma mater University of North Carolina (UNC), it made headlines, as the decision seemed discriminatory against the Pulitzer-prize winning journalist who created the 1619 Project.  After members of the Board of Trustees lobbied against her, then the school eventually offering her tenure, Hannah-Jones is breaking what has been a bit of a quiet spell, with news that she declined UNC’s late and pressured offer for a newly created role at an esteemed institution.  

“I cannot imagine working at and advancing a school named for a man who lobbied against me, who used his wealth to influence the hires and ideology of the journalism school, who ignored my 20 years of journalism experience, all of my credentials, all of my work, because he believed that a project that centered Black Americans equaled the denigration of White Americans. Nor can I work at an institution whose leadership permitted this conduct and has done nothing to disavow it,” Hannah-Jones wrote in a letter explaining why she won’t be returning to UNC.

In a letter that detailed her initial love and loyalty to UNC, Hannah-Jones said she’d be taking on a new role as the inaugural Knight Chair in Race and Reporting at Howard University.  There, Hannah-Jones will be a tenured professor at the Cathy Hughes School of Journalism and joining her as a faculty member will be Howard alum and celebrated writer Ta-Nehisi Coates in the College of Arts and Sciences.

“It is my pleasure to welcome to Howard two of today’s most respected and influential journalists,” said Howard President Wayne A. I. Frederick in a statement submitted to the AFRO.  “At such a critical time for race relations in our country, it is vital that we understand the role of journalism in steering our national conversation and social progress. Not only must our newsrooms reflect the communities where they are reporting, but we need to infuse the profession with diverse talent. We are thrilled that they will bring their insights and research to what is already a world-class, highly accomplished team of professors.”

These two appointments were made possible through donations from the Knight Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Ford Foundation and an anonymous donor, with the purpose of intentionally investing in the next generation of Black journalists.

And in hard-working, Black woman fashion, Hannah-Jones, founder of the Center for Journalism and Democracy,  is already busy helping to provide more opportunities for Howard’s students.

“I will be creating a new initiative aimed at training aspiring journalists to cover the crisis of our democracy and bolstering journalism programs at historically Black colleges and universities across the country,” Hannah-Jones wrote.  “I have already helped secure $15 million for this effort, called the Center for Journalism and Democracy, with the generous grants from the Ford, Knight, and MacArthur foundations, and have set a goal of raising $25 million. In the storied tradition of the Black press, the Center for Journalism and Democracy will help produce journalists capable of accurately and urgently covering the perilous challenges of our democracy with a clarity, skepticism, rigor, and historical dexterity that is too often missing from today’s journalism.”

In her letter explaining the decision to decline UNC’s offer, Hannah-Jones made it clear why going to Howard was important to her after experiencing all she had at her alma mater.

“I have decided that instead of fighting to prove I belong at an institution that until 1955 prohibited Black Americans from attending, I am instead going to work in the legacy of a university not built by the enslaved but for those who once were. For too long, Black Americans have been taught that success is defined by gaining entry to and succeeding in historically white institutions. I have done that, and now I am honored and grateful to join the long legacy of Black Americans who have defined success by working to build up their own,” the award-winning journalist said.

“Historically Black colleges and universities have long punched above their weight, producing a disproportionate number of Black professionals while working with disproportionately low resources. It is my great honor to help usher to this storied institution these significant resources that will help support the illustrious, hardworking, and innovative faculty at the Cathy Hughes School of Communications and the brilliant students it draws Thank you, President Wayne Frederick and Dean Gracie Lawson-Borders, for always treating me with dignity and respect, and for offering me a home where I can do my work unimpeded,” she continued.

While she said she will forever be a “Tar Heel,” and sad that she is leaving her students, many of whom fought against the injustice of her not initially receiving tenure, she was happy to join the Howard family.

“I will always be a Tar Heel. I remain grateful for all the university has given me and am committed to a lifetime of paying it forward. And I am so excited to now call myself a Bison as well and join the Howard family of which I have long desired to belong,” Hannah-Jones said, closing her letter, which was submitted by the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, who is representing the writer along with co-counsel Levy Ratner, PC and Ferguson, Chambers & Sumter, P.A.

Coates, who has openly proclaimed his gratitude for his formation as a Bison, also expressed the tremendous honor in joining his alma mater as a professor.

“I heard a wise man once say, ‘A man who hates home will never be happy.’ And it is in the pursuit of wisdom and happiness that I return to join the esteemed faculty of Howard University. This is the faculty that molded me. This is the faculty that strengthened me,” the Between the World and Me author said. “Personally, I know of no higher personal honor than this.”

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Micha Green

AFRO Washington, D.C. Editor