'This was never about me.' Hannah-Jones says UNC settlement goes beyond money

An agreement between UNC-Chapel Hill and journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones came in response to a dispute last year over a tenured position at the university.

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Bryan Anderson, WRAL state government reporter,
Sarah Krueger, WRAL Durham reporter
Journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones, who last week reached a settlement with UNC-Chapel Hill over a high-profile tenure saga, said the agreement goes beyond the payout of less than $75,000.

“The University of North Carolina has confirmed the dollar amount of my settlement over my tenure in media reports, but my settlement was about much more than that,” Hannah-Jones wrote in a series of posts on Twitter.

Hannah-Jones, a UNC alumna, said the agreement reached with the university includes priorities for students and faculty of color on campus, including the university agreeing to train 20 paid faculty and staff to assist UNC in diversifying its hiring.

Hannah-Jones also said UNC must post a position by July 31 for an additional trauma-informed therapist within the Multicultural Health Program and spend $5,000 in Provost’s Office funds each year through June 2025 for meeting expenses, events and symposia sponsored by the Carolina Black Caucus.

"We took these concessions directly from the asks of student and faculty groups and fought very hard for them,” Hannah-Jones wrote. “We believe that these concessions will help make my alma mater better and help it live up to its promise. As I said again and again: This was never about me.”

UNC declined Tuesday to confirm Hannah-Jones’ comments. The university and Board of Trustees Chairman David Boliek declined to provide any comment beyond a statement issued last week that said the university would “accelerate its investment in crucial initiatives.” The university didn’t provide specifics on what was in the settlement or what those initiatives were.

The settlement comes in response to a saga over the journalist’s tenure last year. Hannah-Jones was hired last year as the university’s Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism.

While prior Knight Chairs had been granted tenure, Hannah-Jones was offered a five-year contract. That prompted outcry from many UNC students and faculty who believed she deserved tenure. They questioned whether the lack of tenure related to her work on the 1619 Project, an initiative from The New York Times that won a Pulitzer Prize and seeks to reframe the country’s history with slavery at the center of America’s identity.

Walter Hussman, a major donor whose name is on UNC’s journalism school, had previously questioned Hannah-Jones, saying the 1619 Project wasn't objective reporting, and he didn't want the school dragged into the national controversy over it. He also privately expressed concerns to Hussman School of Journalism and Media administrators about hiring her.

Hannah-Jones criticized Hussman for not supporting her hiring, and he also faced pushback from professors in the program who claimed the episode damaged UNC-Chapel Hill's reputation.

Following those protests, UNC-Chapel Hill’s Board of Trustees offered her tenure. Hannah-Jones turned that down to take a similar Knight Chair position at Howard University in Washington, D.C.

The situation in part prompted the Accrediting Council on Education in Journalism and Mass Communications to temporarily downgrade UNC’s Hussman School of Journalism and Media.

Several community members said they viewed what Hannah-Jones shared on Tuesday as a step in the right direction but called for the university to do more to ensure Black students and faculty members can thrive on campus.

“For a system like UNC to be truly equitable, more work has to be put in on multiple different levels,” said Amanda Jesuca, an incoming UNC student. “Twenty faculty members isn’t enough. $5,000 isn’t enough. It has to be a continuous commitment to Black students and the Black community in and around Chapel Hill.”

Lawyers for Hannah-Jones declined a request for comment on Tuesday. Last week, they alluded to institutional provisions in the settlement.

“We believe this settlement will help support the ongoing work towards addressing racial inequity at the university,” Legal Defense Fund President Janai S. Nelson said in a statement Friday.


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