The following message was sent to the UNC-Chapel Hill Faculty on June 19, 2021. The email can be viewed at this link.
Dear Carolina Community:
Like many of you, this weekend I find myself with a heavy heart. Despite calls for action from the Faculty Executive Committee, from individual faculty members, from the Council of Chairs, from alumnae, from donors, and from funders to act without delay on the tenure case of Nikole Hannah-Jones, thus far, the Board of Trustees, to which our University is entrusted, has remained stubbornly silent. The reputational threat to our University grows by the day and we remain in the headlines for all the wrong reasons.
Couple this situation with departure notices from notable faculty women of color, individuals who are leaders on this campus who called us to confront hard truths and provided roadmaps for change. They likely did not leave in direct response to Nikole Hannah-Jones’ tenure case—academic hiring is a long process that predates the current situation—but what is happening with Ms. Hannah-Jones is emblematic of one set of reasons that likely prompted their decisions. As a community, we can and must do better by faculty, staff, and students of color. But to do that work, much of which is underway, we must resolve the status of Ms. Hannah-Jones.
I want to tell you today what I know about that situation, noting that it is both a personnel matter and, at present, also a legal matter. Those realities mean that it is very difficult for the administration—meaning our chancellor and provost—to make public comments. Accordingly, I have asked them for updates and have let them know that I would be sharing my understanding of what is happening and has happened with you. I want to be clear that I am not speaking for them. They have a communications team for that. But I have spoken with them and want you to know that what I am conveying is informed by those conversations.
First, to the past. Some members of our community have called for more transparency around how a fixed term path for Ms. Hannah-Jones came to be. As was publicly reported and confirmed, Ms. Hannah-Jones’ tenure dossier was received by the provost in November. However, questions coming through informal channels caused the provost to delay sending the dossier until January so that he could fully prepare for any questions or concerns the BOT might raise. It is my understanding that those concerns included three general categories: 1) the structure of her ongoing employment by The New York Times as well as UNC-Chapel Hill, 2) her teaching and scholarly potential, and 3) academic concerns associated with The 1619 Project. Our provost, consistent with his regular practice, asked others on campus with relevant expertise to assist him as he prepared to respond to questions in these areas. This preparation was done between November and the start of the spring semester. The dossier was sent to the Trustees for consideration at their January 2021 meeting. At that point, the chair of the BOT’s University Affairs Committee indicated that he had questions, though no specific questions were posed, and said that consideration of the dossier would be delayed. It was then that the administration, together with Dean King, spoke with Ms. Hannah-Jones about making use of a relatively new structure within our tenure policy—the variable track—by which someone begins on a fixed term with the option of switching to a tenured or tenure track position at a later date. While some may think the administration should have waited until the March BOT meeting to see what would happen, the choice was made because of concerns that Ms. Hannah-Jones might accept another offer and uncertainty about the BOT’s timing for a response.
At this point, I want to be clear that the request I am about to make comes only from me. I ask that the campus community speak loudly and with one voice. If you or your department or school has not yet spoken out, now is the time to do so. We need every dean and every department chair on this campus to make a statement, send it to the BOT, and put it on your websites; we need student groups, particularly those that espouse free speech and thought diversity to speak up; athletes and coaches, we need you to take a stand; and concerned citizens who want your children’s degrees from UNC to continue to stand for excellence, please call your representatives and write to your local newspapers. Make sure that all such communications are conveyed to the Board of Trustees. Please send them to the Office of Faculty Governance (email@example.com or the mailing address below) as well so that we can keep a record. You do not have to agree with Ms. Hannah-Jones’ conclusions in The 1619 Project to do this. You only have to agree that faculty voice must govern the tenure process for academic integrity to have meaning. If outside bodies, in this case the BOT, without subject matter expertise are the arbiters of faculty scholarship, all faculty members run the risk of being punished for work that questions the status quo, threatens some outside interest, or makes people uncomfortable. Such a path takes us back to times when scholars from Socrates to Galileo were punished for their ideas. That is a path where light and liberty die. Don’t let it. Use your voice. Keep going. Stand strong.
Mimi V. Chapman, MSW, PhD
Chair of the Faculty
Frank A. Daniels Distinguished Professor for Human Service Policy Information
Associate Dean for Doctoral Education
School of Social Work
Office of Faculty Governance
Campus Box 9170
University of North Carolina
Chapel Hill, NC 27599-9170