Higher Ed, North Carolina

Nikole Hannah-Jones' tenure application at UNC-Chapel Hill matters

June 23, 2021 |8:27 min read

It's past time for BOT to do the right thing

The letter below was sent on June 22, 2021, to Richard Stevens, JD, Chair of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Board of Trustees, and to all Trustees.

Dear Chair Stevens,

I appreciate the difficult role you have undertaken as chair of the Board of Trustees during a challenging time. I write from the perspective of dean of one of UNC’s most highly regarded schools to encourage you to trust and rely upon the rigorous processes in place for reviewing faculty appointments and granting tenure and promotions. Bottom line: I encourage you to call a special meeting (pending approval by the required number of BOT members), or place on the agenda for the next BOT meeting, consideration of the Nikole Hannah-Jones case. This issue is roiling the campus and damaging our reputation. The actions I recommend are consistent with the BOT’s responsibility in 403 A. General Powers and Duties: “Each board of trustees shall promote the sound development of its institution within the functions prescribed for it, helping it to serve the people of the state in a way that will complement the activities of the other institutions and aiding it to perform at a high level of excellence in every area of endeavor.”

Many thousands of words have been written and spoken about what has happened at UNC-Chapel Hill concerning Nikole Hannah-Jones’s appointment to the faculty of the Hussman School of Journalism and Media. For weeks, I have felt my voice was not needed, but I am so concerned about what is happening to the reputation of this university, to collective morale, and to people of color at UNC-Chapel Hill that I cannot remain silent. I have utmost respect for our BOT, chancellor and provost, and recognize that the latter leaders are constrained in many ways. However, having dedicated nearly two decades of my professional life to UNC-CH, I feel compelled to write and offer ten points.

  1. University governance is strongest when people most knowledgeable about situations make decisions about them. We must get our processes right and then follow them. Like many processes in the professions, decisions about appointments, tenure and promotions rely on peer review. Peer review is not perfect, but it is a good system with many checks and balances. The outstanding faculty members at Carolina are testimony to the validity of our processes.
  2. After more than 15 years as dean, I can say that, while university appointments, promotion and tenure processes are slow, arduous and highly specific to universities, schools, fields and subfields within them, the result is an extremely rigorous assessment of each person being considered for appointment to the faculty and/or for tenure and promotion. The bar for tenure is especially high because it carries a lifetime appointment with continued expectations for excellence. While all candidates are expected to excel in teaching, research, and practice to be considered for initial appointments, tenure and promotions, significant differences abound. Some fields expect scholarly books and articles in very particular journals. Some faculty members may publish 50 articles to become a full professor, while in other fields, well over 100 is the minimum. In other words, as you well know, expectations reflect a department or field’s standards.
  3. While expectations for performance differ, rigorous review processes for appointments, promotions and tenure are the glue that binds disparate units together. Each school and unit prepare statements regarding expectations for appointments, promotions and tenure. Tenure packages come to me and other deans after review at the department (or sometimes other) level. At the Gillings School, this may mean an exhaustive review by up to 40 people at the department level, and another 30 individuals at the school level, before it comes to me. Letters from external reviewers constitute another check on quality and impact. These impartial individuals (2/4 letters must be from experts who have not collaborated with the candidate) – experts in the candidate’s field – bring independent assessment, and we take their assessments seriously.
  4. I read all tenure packages carefully and frequently ask questions about them, especially if external letters indicate any reluctance to recommend promotion or tenure. I do not debate or second-guess expectations for faculty members in different departments once they are established. I recognize how thoroughly they will have been considered. Nor do I question individual scholarly products, although I might ask someone in the field to weigh in. I read the candidate’s materials carefully, including the candidate’s CV, chair’s letter, letter from the APT chair and four or more external letters. From there, the dossier goes to yet another committee (the Health Sciences Advisory Committee), and then to UNC’s Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost. I understand that Ms. Hannah-Jones’s dossier underwent such a thorough review, and that she was recommended for tenure at the Hussman School and subsequent university levels.The BOT typically receives candidates’ dossiers after exhaustive assessments at different levels of the university have been conducted, with checks and balances at every stage. BOT members never will have adequate time to study tenure dossiers the way faculty members and leaders in departments, schools and at the university level are expected to do. While deans must learn the expectations for their respective schools, the BOT would have to master the intricacies of promotions for all schools and departments on campus. There are simply too many variations to master them all. Questioning the products of some faculty member candidates at the BOT level and not others, especially in controversial areas, leaves the board open to charges of partisan considerations. That is one of the concerns in the Nikole Hannah-Jones case.
  5. Faculty members, chairs, deans, and university leaders should be accountable for fulfillment of tenure processes. When Hussman School of Journalism and Media faculty members reviewed Nikole Hannah-Jones’s dossier and concluded that it met the mark for full professor with tenure, and the package moved through university processes, I believe our BOT should have taken the recommendations as having come from faculty members and leaders who had done due diligence, aided by external reviewers who also had reviewed her body of scholarly work. Each step in the APT process will have gotten further and further from people who can evaluate an individual candidate’s field and work. That is why department chairs, associate deans for academic affairs and deans scrutinize dossiers so intensely. We are responsible for assuring that the promotion process is fair and conducted with excellence, equity, and integrity. We do not award tenure as prizes, quid pro quos or gifts. Tenure is earned. Tenure becomes our obligation, and those faculty members’ salaries and continued outstanding performance our responsibility.
  6. The Board of Trustees should be especially careful about challenging recommendations from university committees when the candidate’s work is on a topic that has gotten significant public attention, as the 1619 Project has done. We must continue to attract faculty members who study some of the most difficult topics of our time. Scholarship should be about marshalling and (re)examining evidence, discovering truth, and voicing the implications of that for practice—especially when faculty members are to be in our highly acclaimed professional schools.
  7. Times change, research methods and criteria for evidence evolve. When I started my career, the gold standard for evidence was the randomized trial. Now, other kinds of evidence are recognized, too. Nikole Hannah-Jones’ scholarship has been judged by her peers and found worthy of acclamation and the Pulitzer, the highest prize in journalism. Peer review on multiple levels has found her scholarship outstanding. She is someone we should be proud to have as a senior member of the Carolina faculty—a sentiment that I and colleagues communicated to her.
  8. We bring our points of view to our science and scholarship and individual bodies of work. We teach that science should be free of bias. However, the questions we ask, the methods we use, the conclusions we reach—all are influenced by our past and present experiences. We strive for objectivity, but objectivity is not without social context and lived experience. Objectivity is not without relativity. Some may not like the way Nikole Hannah-Jones did research for 1619, and others may find her painful truths uncomfortable. But that work has had a far greater impact on attitudes about race and understanding about American history than most prior work in this field. Reviewers of her dossier would have been asked to assess the body of her work, including the 1619 Project. It is difficult enough to judge scholarship in one’s own field; it is beyond challenging to do so in other fields.
  9. The fact that Nikole Hannah-Jones is the first person in our journalism school considered for a Knight Professorship and not awarded tenure raises serious questions about the role of her race and the topic she studies. That the BOT apparently has not reached a conclusion about her dossier or has not communicated its decision has undermined the appointment process, called into question members’ motives, damaged the university’s reputation, and undermined morale across the university. I cannot begin to imagine how violated, unsupported, traumatized, and embarrassed Ms. Hannah-Jones must feel.
  10.  This situation has created a crisis for UNC-Chapel Hill. As someone who has spent 15 years trying to increase our school’s diversity, I am disheartened by the threats we now are facing. Too many people of color feel unwelcome and unsupported; and some of those who conduct research on race and racism feel subject to repression. Some faculty and staff are looking elsewhere. Students are being urged not to choose UNC. At the Gillings School, one applicant is no longer joining one of our programs, even after he had submitted his deposit, because of this issue. Years of progress may be undermined, and this would be a problem for our continued reaccreditation.

Given the weight of these points, made by many within the University and beyond, I respectfully urge you to convene the BOT committee which considers appointments and invite appropriate university leaders to discuss the issues so the BOT can reach a conclusion. If you convene such a group, please consider the rigorous appointments and promotions processes that have led this university to sustained greatness. These processes may be arcane, time-consuming, and incredibly stressful for those under the microscope, but their effectiveness is shown by the many markers by which we are judged as a university.

Thank you for your consideration. Please feel free to contact me with any questions you may have.

Barbara K. Rimer


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The views expressed in this blog are Barbara Rimer’s alone and do not represent the views and policies of The University of North Carolina or the Gillings School.