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Head of Middlesex School takes leave of absence after decision to rescind Nikole Hannah-Jones invitation sparked backlash

Nikole Hannah-Jones.
Nikole Hannah-Jones.BENJAMIN NORMAN/NYT

David Beare, the head of Middlesex School, has taken a leave of absence after a decision to rescind a speaking invitation to New York Times journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones sparked an outcry from students and faculty.

The Concord private school is launching an “independent review” into the decision, the board of trustees wrote Thursday in a letter to the school community.

“As we move forward from this week, please know that the Board is committed to understanding in full the events leading to the decision to rescind the invitation to Professor Nikole Hannah-Jones,” they wrote. “To this end, we are initiating an independent review to determine the facts and draw the necessary lessons.”

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Beare announced his leave in a separate e-mail to the school community, saying he made the decision Wednesday afternoon.

“I care deeply about Middlesex and feel that this leave serves the best interest of the students and the School,” Beare wrote. “Thank you to everyone in the School community who has reached out to me and my family during this challenging time.”

Karlyn McNall, the assistant head of school, will fill in as head of school on an interim basis, the trustees said. School officials did not respond to a request for comment.

Hannah-Jones revealed on Twitter on Oct. 18 that the school had withdrawn an invitation for her to speak on campus next February for Black History Month due to the “noise” her presence would create, according to an excerpt of an e-mail from a school representative she posted online.

Hannah-Jones is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who conceived of The 1619 Project, which reexamines the legacy of slavery in the United States. The collection of writings has renewed the divisive debate on teaching race and racism in the public schools and has come under criticism, chiefly from the political right.

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“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 in an interview after the school’s decision.

The decision to disinvite Hannah-Jones came just days after Beare and trustees posted a “letter to the community” strongly endorsing intellectual diversity and support for diversifying the student body and staff.

“As an educational institution, we believe an open exchange of viewpoints is vital to student development and intellectual excellence,” the letter stated. “We believe that respectful debate and disagreement are not only healthy, but the very ground upon which a learning community thrives. We realize that, at times, that discourse may become uncomfortable.”

The day after Hannah-Jones revealed the school’s decision, Beare said in a statement to the Globe that school officials ”were concerned that individuals from outside our community might inadvertently distract from the insights and perspective that she intended to share.”

On Oct. 20, nearly 100 faculty members signed a letter to the board of trustees denouncing the school for rescinding the invitation, saying Hannah-Jones’s visit “promised an important opportunity to continue our work of confronting the deep wounds of slavery and systemic racism.”

The faculty members asked 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.”

In response, Beare and board of trustees president Stephen Lari took responsibility for the school’s decision, saying it “was profoundly wrong” and calling it “a shameful mistake.”

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The board of trustees said that they had not been consulted on the decision to disinvite Hannah-Jones.

Beare met with students twice following the decision, including an emotional session on Oct. 21, several students said.

Last Friday, hundreds of students protested the revoked invitation, walking out of their classrooms, gathering to read tweets critical of the school’s decision, and listening to the Times’s “1619″ podcast.

“This decision was made by the leader and not by our school, and our school represents something totally different than the decisions of our leader,” said AliJah Clark, a 17-year-old junior and student organizer of the protest.


Amanda Kaufman can be reached at amanda.kaufman@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @amandakauf1.