By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Would a lawsuit help or hinder Nikole Hannah-Jones’ tenure case?

Nikole Hannah-Jones. Photo (cc) 2018 by Associação Brasileira de Jornalismo Investigativo

New York Times journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones is said to be considering a lawsuit over a decision by the board of trustees at the University of North Carolina not to grant her tenure. Hannah-Jones is the creator of the 1619 Project, a Pulitzer Prize-winning effort to recenter American history around slavery that has come under attack on the right.

I’m curious as to what a lawsuit would look like. If she could get a hearing, then perhaps it would be possible to force the trustees to explain their reasoning under oath. But my understanding of the tenure process is that you can be turned down at any stage for any reason.

The trustees of a college or university rarely get involved except to ratify whatever the president brings before them. But, in fact, they have the power to say no even to cases that have been approved by the department, the dean, the provost and the president. When I came up for tenure at Northeastern in 2014, I didn’t relax until the trustees had voted since I couldn’t be sure I hadn’t enraged one or more of them with something I’d written or said over the years as part of my work as a journalist.

Hannah-Jones is eminently worthy of tenure, and a nationwide pressure campaign is under way to push the trustees into reversing their earlier decision. She is being denied something she has earned because the right hates her work and her message. Hannah-Jones has been offered a five-year contract instead of tenure, something that the UNC can do without the approval of the trustees. But with tenure comes academic freedom, and it seems pretty clear that one of the trustees’ motives is to force an outspoken Black woman to be careful about what she says and writes.

Still, I have to wonder if a lawsuit would serve more as a distraction than as a way of overturning the trustees’ unjust vote.

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  1. Lex

    Dan, my understanding is that the legal issue here has to do with breach of contract, not tenure per se. Apparently she was originally offered a contract that included tenure, and then (at least according to her legal theory) the trustees breached it by not following through. I’m still skeptical that she has a case, and I haven’t seen much written about this.



    • Dan Kennedy

      Lex, I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that if such a contract was offered, it was illegal — maybe too strong a word. Invalid. Nonbinding. No one gets tenure until the trustees sign off.

  2. Steve Ross

    Interesting thought. Knight chairs almost always came with tenure. It used to be a condition for accepting funds from the foundation for the chair in the first place. Haven’t checked lately, so maybe that stipulation is no longer in place.

    • Dan Kennedy

      Steve, the trustees always have a say. So if the Knight chair comes with tenure, then the trustees have to sign off on it.

    • Dan Kennedy

      Lex, the idea that UNC failed to make good on its promise to hire her to a tenured position is just wrong. Yeah, they’re lawyers, I’m not, but a claim like that just gets everything backwards. The lawyers are also claiming viewpoint and racial discrimination. That sounds like a more promising route, although tenure is not guaranteed to anyone.

      • Steve Ross

        Dianna Moses, I think the idea was that since the institution isn’t paying, the trustees don’t have a voice after they accept the fellowship in the first place, except for criminality. Thus the specific offer of tenure can be made. But that was 20 years ago. Not sure a knight chair endowment now covers all the cost of a tenured professor. Knight Foundation isn’t as wealthy and salaries/ benefits/ overheads are higher. In this case, I wonder if the state legislature or a major donor told the trustees to vote this down. Assume it would come out in trial.

        Columbia trustees used to have veto over Pulitzers. When they actually exercised it — to deny Pynchon’s novel, Gravity’s Rainbow, a Pulitzer (more or less because they didn’t understand the physics in the plot), the decision stood but the Trustees gave up their veto power.

        As a member of the journalism faculty and a physicist, I was both amused and angry.

    • I read the letter from Hannah-Jones’s lawyers and am still confused about the terms of the original invitation to join the faculty and the timeline. If the endowed professorship at issue is a position that automatically comes with tenure, then why must a person invited to occupy the position file an application for tenure? Should I infer that the tenure application is usually pro forma and that the vetting process for the original invitation is supposed to assure that the granting of tenure will not be an issue? There seems to me to be a disconnect between the invitation terms and the possible ways the tenure process can play out. Is it possible that the representations in the original invitation to Hannah-Jones were misleading? That would not mean that the way the tenure approval process was carried out was not also flawed as well.

      • Steve Ross

        Having helped administer the establishment of a knight chair at Columbia and having been nominated (but not chosen) for several, it used to be that a normal condition for establishing the chair and accepting the endowment from Knight was that the position was tenured. Once the endowment was accepted by the trustees or whoever, the trustees had no more say. It wasn’t their money. But that was 20 years ago. The deal may have changed. Knight probably isn’t as rich as it used to be, so the endowment may no longer be a full one, for instance. Tenure offers at least partial protection against politics and racism, in theory. The UNC trustees exposed themselves as political and racist. A lawsuit should increase the price they have to pay for that. But I note that Republicans have packed the lower courts with judges often deemed unsuitable by the American Bar Association.

      • Steve Ross: I’m still not understanding how the tenure process and the process for filling a Knight chair fit together. Where in the appointment process to a Knight chair does the tenure process come? After a person is nominated, chosen, and invited, but before they are actually appointed? Can the tenure process upend a Knight chair invitation under circumstances not involving the trustees? I am trying to understand whether there is a gap between an “invitation” and a firm job offer, given what the Hannah-Jones team seems to be arguing (in addition to their arguments about wrongful considerations in the tenure process).

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