Nikole Hannah-Jones’s Tenure Denial Is a Clarion Call to Fix the Process

university building symbolizes need to reexamine tenure

Our latest higher education-centered saga involves the recent tenure denial of the prominent Black, award-winning journalist and lead writer for The 1619 Project, Nikole Hannah-Jones. Her denial follows the tenure denial of Cornel West, resulting in his transition from Harvard University to Union Theological Seminary. The Jones and West denial cases are part of an alarming, multi-year pattern of tenure denials to people of color chronicled in news articles and via the Twitter hashtag #BlackInTheIvory.

The decision to deny Jones tenure appears to be deeply political. Despite support for tenure from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s journalism department and hundreds of academics, journalists, activists, and entertainers, the institution’s Board of Trustees allegedly rejected Jones’s offer, countering with a five-year contract and an offer to pursue tenure later. If true, this is a provocative move that can set into motion more inappropriate encroachment of trustees into the academic enterprise, which is primarily considered the domain of the faculty.

The UNC-Chapel Hill circumstance and many others in which talented BIPOC professors are denied tenure in a seemingly capricious manner should be viewed as a clarion call to reenvision higher education’s tenure process. I recommend a reenvisioning rather than a complete abandonment because tenure is necessary for a thriving faculty. But the tenure process (along with search processes for tenure track positions) is where diversity dies a highly consequential death, as discussed in the 2016 collection Written/Unwritten (preview only), edited by Patricia A. Matthew.

The American professoriate remains predominantly white—53 percent of full-time faculty are white men, while Black men, Black women, and Hispanic males comprise only 3 percent of full-time faculty. Given these statistics, it is not surprising that racial and ethnic diversity within the part-time faculty ranks is not better. This stark absence of diversity within the full-time tenure ranks will compromise stated institutional values of diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility (DEIA). Institutional chief diversity officers cannot advance DEIA efforts without a professoriate that reflects their universities’, and the world’s, changing demographics.

How does this work start? For one, I believe those of us committed to advancing DEIA through a strengthened tenure process must be clear about the value of tenured, diverse faculty. Rather than continuously espousing concepts such as “academic freedom” and “shared governance,” which can be confusing and alienating to the general public, I suggest that we make a quick pivot. This pivot includes highlighting that tenure is the invitation to shape and guide the future of an institution and professional fields. I also suggest shortening the duration of time on the tenure track and revisiting institutional bylaws that give trustees the authority to reject tenure recommendations made by schools and departments.

It is the faculty that primarily shapes the academic enterprise, which is the principal reason for higher education. The curriculum is the oil of an institution’s machinery. Those outside the academy are marshalling dialogue points and resources at a rapid pace to direct our future and those of us in higher education must not allow this to continue without our active involvement. For higher education to grow and thrive, we must work diligently toward constituting a more diverse professoriate that is equipped to lead during these challenging times.

Update: Nikole Hannah-Jones was granted tenure by a 9-4 vote of the UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees during the week of June 30, 2021, after massive backlash from within and outside the campus community and a pending lawsuit from Jones. On July 6, 2021, Jones announced her decision to decline tenure at UNC-Chapel Hill on CBS This Morning. She recently accepted the position of the Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism at Howard University, a historically Black university in Washington, D.C.

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Header image is a detail of This is Harlem by Jacob Lawrence. Courtesy of Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. © 2021 The Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Foundation, Seattle / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. For more information, click here.