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UNC trustees approve journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones’ tenure bid

Nikole Hannah-Jones in the newsroom of The New York Times in New York on Oct. 10, 2017.
Nikole Hannah-Jones in the newsroom of The New York Times in New York on Oct. 10, 2017.James Estrin/NYT

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (AP) — Trustees at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill on Wednesday approved a plan to offer tenure to investigative journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones, capping weeks of tension that began when a board member halted the process over questions about her teaching credentials.

The board voted 9-4 to accept the application for tenure at a special meeting that included a closed-door session.

The university announced in April that Hannah-Jones, who won a Pulitzer Prize for her work on the New York Times Magazine’s 1619 Project that focused on the country’s history of slavery, would be joining the journalism school’s faculty as the Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism in July with a five-year contract.

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Before Wednesday, the school had said little about why tenure was not offered, but a prominent donor revealed he had emailed university leaders challenging her work as “highly contentious and highly controversial” before the process was halted.

Hannah-Jones attorneys had announced last week that she would not report for work without tenure, prompting a call from Student Body President Lamar Richards, who’s also a trustee, for the board to convene a special meeting.

Hannah-Jones was not present for the board meeting, and her lawyers didn’t immediately respond to questions for comment on Wednesday’s decision.

Earlier in the year, Hannah-Jones’ tenure application was halted because she did not come from a “traditional academic-type background,” and a trustee who vets the lifetime appointments wanted more time to consider her qualifications, university leaders had said.

The school has said little about why tenure was not offered, but a prominent donor revealed he had emailed university leaders challenging her work as “highly contentious and highly controversial” before the process was halted.

Some conservatives have complained about The 1619 Project, which focused on the country’s history of slavery.

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Board chairman Richard Stevens had earlier declined comment through the school on the specific nature of Wednesday’s meeting.

The gathering of the trustees came a day before Hannah-Jones was scheduled to start work at the journalism school. But her attorneys announced last week that she would not report for work without tenure.

Last week, UNC Student Body President Lamar Richards, who’s also a trustee, requested that the board convene a special meeting no later than Wednesday to vote on tenure.

Earlier in the year, a decision by trustees to halt Hannah-Jones’ tenure submission sparked a torrent of criticism from within the community. It ultimately revealed a depth of frustration over the school’s failure to answer longstanding concerns about the treatment of Black faculty, staff and students.

Several hundred UNC students had gathered near the chancellor’s office last Friday to demand that trustees reconsider tenure for Hannah-Jones.

After a closed-door session Wednesday afternoon by the trustees, the doors to their gathering place were reopened to the public shortly after 6 p.m.. A police presence was increased in the hallway adjacent to the meeting room before the vote was taken.

Protesters had been turned back earlier in an attempt Wednesday to enter the building where the meeting was being held.