Nearly 100 faculty members and staffers are denouncing Middlesex School’s decision to disinvite Nikole Hannah-Jones, the Pulitzer-Prize winning New York Times journalist who conceived The 1619 Project, from speaking on campus next year.
In an open letter to the trustees, employees at the Concord boarding school said they “unequivocally reject Head of School David Beare’s decision to rescind Middlesex’s invitation to Nikole Hannah-Jones to address the school on her Pulitzer Prize-winning journalism.”
Hannah-Jones’s visit, originally slated for February to coincide with Black History Month, “promised an important opportunity to continue our work of confronting the deep wounds of slavery and systemic racism,” the letter stated.
In a joint statement Thursday evening, Beare and board of trustees President Stephen Lari took responsibility for the decision to cancel Hannah-Jones’s invitation, saying their choice “was profoundly wrong” and calling it “a shameful mistake.”
“We deeply regret it and have had many gut-wrenching conversations within our community regarding the decision, how it was made, and the disrespect we showed Professor Hannah-Jones,” they said, adding that they apologize to Hannah-Jones and “are endeavoring to offer our apology to her in person.”
The cancelation was not in line with the trustees’ “commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion” and the decision was made without sufficient input from trustees, faculty, staff, and students, Beare and Lari said. They pledged to “work to heal our community and endeavor to become an example of how communities can recover from such a difficult and painful incident.”
Earlier this week, Hannah-Jones said a representative from Middlesex had reached out through a friend in April, asking if she would speak at the school. But on Monday, her assistant forwarded her an e-mail from the representative, who said the invitation had been rescinded.
“According to my head of school and board, the ‘noise’ associated with having Nikole as the speaker would take away from the overall experience,” the e-mail read, according to an excerpt Hannah-Jones posted to Twitter. “I then suggested that Nikole be a featured speaker for our BIPOC alumni and was told ‘this is not the right thing for our community.’”
BIPOC stands for Black, Indigenous and people of color.
Hannah-Jones has faced sharp criticism, chiefly from the political right, for her work on The 1619 Project, a collection of writings that re-examines the legacy of slavery on American society and has renewed the divisive debate on teaching race and racism in the public schools.
“I think it’s pretty clear that we are in a moment where schools are facing intense pressure not to invite speakers that are considered to be focusing too much on race and racism and the Black experience in American history,” Hannah-Jones told the Globe Tuesday in response to Middlesex School’s decision to withdraw its invitation. “We know that there have been several very high-profile stories published in the press or by former journalists that are, you know, castigating these elite white prep schools for daring to have anti-racism training or daring to invite anti-racist speakers, so I think I’m clearly getting caught up in that. And then obviously I, myself, because of a very successful right-wing propaganda campaign, I have become a symbol as well.”
Hannah-Jones won the Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 2020 for the project’s introductory essay and has won a MacArthur “genius grant” for her reporting on racial segregation in America.
Earlier this year, Hannah-Jones accepted a position as the Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism at the University of North Carolina, but her tenure bid stalled amid complaints from a top donor. Amid an outcry, the board of trustees voted in June to offer her tenure, but she said she would join the faculty of Howard University, a historically Black college in Washington, D.C.
At Middlesex, faculty said the school’s decision to rescind its invitation sent a message that “contradicts the mission and core values of our school.”
“The decision jeopardizes the important diversity, equity, and inclusion work that the faculty, staff, and student body are undertaking. It damages our sense of community for current, prospective, and past students and calls our school’s commitment to anti-racism into question,” the letter stated.
Earlier this week, Beare said the school has the “utmost respect” for Hannah-Jones and her work.
“While we are confident that her insights would have been valued by our students, we were concerned that individuals from outside our community might inadvertently distract from the insights and perspective that she intended to share,” Beare said in a statement “We apologize that we did not reach out in a more formal way to express our appreciation for her professional achievements and contributions to the field and discuss the situation with her.”
But faculty members called on trustees to have Beare “formally apologize to Ms. Hannah-Jones, as well as to the school, which he deprived of an exceptional moment of learning.”
“We also ask the Board to take action, in partnership with the faculty and staff, to rebuild our trust and to regain the community’s confidence in Middlesex’s commitment to the anti-racism work that is so vital to the growth and future of our school,” they wrote.
The decision not to invite Hannah-Jones came just days after the school’s 34 trustees and Beare posted a “letter to the community” strongly endorsing intellectual diversity and support for diversifying the student body and staff. The letter was shared Oct. 15, after a year-long examination by consultants on diversity, equity, and inclusion.
Amanda Kaufman and John R. Ellement of the Globe staff and correspondent Jeremy C. Fox contributed to this report.
Travis Andersen can be reached at email@example.com.