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.