Front Page Talking Points


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Star reporter jumps from University of North Carolina faculty to Howard; her reason makes news


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A journalist's decision about where to teach isn't typically a big deal, but the change of plans that Nikole Hannah-Jones of The New York Times announced last week made a national splash. That's because her switch from the University of North Carolina (UNC) to Howard University in Washington, D.C., touches on race, politics and academic freedom.

The Pulitzer-winning reporter had accepted an offer from UNC, where she earned a master's degree in 2003 and where the journalism school dean and other professors recommended her for a senior-level status known as tenure – which virtually guarantees continued employment. That path was blocked by the school’s trustees, who offer her a five-year contract instead. They cited the journalist's lack of teaching experience and other concerns, though they clearly reacted to opposition from conservative legislators and an Arkansas newspaper publisher who's a major UNC donor. Critics dislike her lead role in "The 1619 Project" – an in-depth 2019 look by The Times at slavery's impact on America, historically and through to the present. The special magazine issue said it "aims to reframe the country's history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of Black Americans at the very center of the United States' national narrative."

The board's unusual interference in a faculty decision provoked an outcry from students, professors and beyond the campus, as well as a possible lawsuit by Hannah-Jones. All but four of the 13 trustees backed down and voted to grant her tenure, but the newswoman told Gayle King of CBS: "It's not my job to heal the University of North Carolina. . . . It's pretty clear that my tenure was not taken up because of political opposition, because of discriminatory views against my viewpoint and, I believe, [because of] my race and my gender." (See video below.)

She later added in a statement: "I cannot imagine working at and advancing a school named for a man who lobbied against me, . . . 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 will teach instead at the traditionally Black campus in the capital, where she'll have tenure while still writing for The Times. At UNC, journalism Dean Susan King lamented last week: "Race again has come to the forefront."

Protagonist says: "This fight is about ensuring the journalistic and academic freedom of Black writers, researchers, teachers and students. We must ensure that our work is protected and able to proceed free from the risk of repercussions, and we are not there yet." – Nikole Hannah-Jones

UNC dean says: "We wanted you here to really shape a new generation. We couldn't put the extra burden on you to try to heal everything we need to heal here. … I can’t wait to see all you will do at Howard. We will all benefit!" – Susan King, UNC School of Journalism and Media dean, to Hannah-Jones on CNN and in tweet

Columnist says: "It was an inspiring move. It showed a Black woman saying that she didn't have to settle for getting a foot in the door. She didn't have to feel thankful for reluctant acceptance. That it resonated so powerfully with people of color across the country shows just how much that example was needed. That it felt so rare shows how much work remains." – Theresa Vargas, The Washington Post

Front Page Talking Points is written by Alan Stamm for, Copyright 2021

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