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Nikole Hannah-Jones Has Chosen Howard, Not UNC-Chapel Hill, For Tenure

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones has made her decision.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NIKOLE HANNAH-JONES: Well, I've decided to decline the offer of tenure. I will not be teaching on the faculty of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. It's a very difficult decision, not a decision I wanted to make. And instead, I'm going to be the inaugural Knight Chair in Race and Journalism at Howard University.

KELLY: Speaking there on "CBS This Morning." Well, Hannah-Jones's decision comes after weeks of litigating between her legal team and leadership at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and less than a week after UNC trustees voted to give her tenure. Joining us now is Dawna Jones. She is assistant dean of students, also chair of the Carolina Black Caucus, a group of Black faculty, students and alumni at UNC. Dawna Jones, welcome back.

DAWNA JONES: Thank you for having me again.

KELLY: And also with us, Taliajah "Teddy" Vann, president of the Black Student Movement at UNC-Chapel Hill. Welcome to you, too.

TALIAJAH VANN: Thank you. It's great to be here, Mary Louise.

KELLY: First off, both of your reactions to this decision today from Hannah-Jones. Dawna, you first.

JONES: For us as faculty and staff members, you know, we completely and totally understand Ms. Hannah-Jones's decision. We are disappointed that we won't get to work with her as a colleague here at UNC-Chapel Hill, but we are delighted that she chose herself first and that she honor her own legacy and the legacy of Ida B. Wells, as she often does - but that she's taking her talents to an HBCU. We couldn't be more proud of her, and we are excited to see what comes.

KELLY: Teddy Vann, how about for you? We just heard there one reaction saying this is Nikole Hannah-Jones honoring herself, putting herself first. Is that the way you see it?

VANN: Absolutely. I think that it's amazing that Nikole Hannah-Jones is going to be able to be a professor at Howard. I'm honestly just so happy to know that a Black woman is going to get to attend - be a professor at a university where she is actually welcome and valued.

KELLY: Either of you surprised at, I suppose, one, the turn of events - that the board did indeed grant tenure after all this - and second, that she ultimately turned it down?

JONES: Not at all. I mean, to be honest with you, I think that the public pressure on the board to do just what was their basic job and their basic duty - that that played out the way it was supposed to, although it should have a long time ago. Not at all surprised that she chose not to come here. You know, as the Carolina Black Caucus said in our statement, we understand the necessity to choose yourself and to not choose to come to an institution that will willfully disrespect you at every turn.

KELLY: Please, Teddy, jump in.

VANN: I would echo all the same as Dawna. And I would also add that it's not surprising in any way when you understand that this university attempted to exploit Nikole Hannah-Jones. That's exactly what happened. They offered her this position, and they tried to give her a five-year contract for it instead of the tenure that everyone else has gotten with it. The university was called out. Students called them out. We got on the ground and rallied to get them to change this decision. Had we not been here, they would not have granted her tenure.

KELLY: Dawna Jones, you're speaking to us with a couple of different hats on, but you are on faculty at the university. What do you think needs to happen now at the university?

JONES: I think this is time for a true and steadfast commitment to a racial reckoning. We have to truly honor the support that we say that we give to our students. We also have to see a campus change in climate so that when we do provide an opportunity for recruitment and retention of Black faculty and BIPOC faculty, that there is a natural climate that they want to be in and that they can thrive in. So I think those are just a few of the things. Our students are absolutely owed an apology first. And then we have to get to the work of changing the climate on this campus.

KELLY: Dawna Jones, when we last spoke to you last month, some Black professors, some students had left the school, and a bunch of others were wondering whether they should be looking elsewhere. Where does that count stand today?

JONES: So unfortunately, the count is rising so quickly that we haven't had an opportunity to get an official number of who has left, even since the last time I was able to speak with you all here at NPR. What we do know is that that number changes every single day. Every day I get a phone call or a text message or an email that tells me that yet another Black faculty or staff member or even students are taking their talents elsewhere.

KELLY: Either of you considered leaving UNC?

VANN: Yes, numerous times between now and my first year at UNC at Chapel Hill.

KELLY: This is Teddy speaking. Go on.

VANN: Having gotten into the school, seeing the problems and seeing how important it is, how imperative it is to have Black student leaders who are on the ground fighting this fight, it gets exhausting to have to do this constantly. I feel secondhand exhaustion from alumni who went to this university and who are telling me they had to fight the same fights that I'm fighting when they were here 10, 20, 30 years ago. I hope that Black students don't have to always have this experience at UNC. But I can say for myself, it gets incredibly tiring having to constantly fight for yourself, because we shouldn't have to fight to exist on this campus in any way.

KELLY: I want to read a comment from Deen Freelon. This is an assistant professor at UNC's school of journalism. He is Black. He is not leaving. And he posted on Twitter a thread about why. This is what he wrote, in part. And I'll quote - "What's happening at UNC isn't an isolated incident. The broader forces that led to the NHJ debacle" - NHJ, of course, Nikole Hannah-Jones - "they are still at work. This won't be the last time or the last place we see something like this." Dawna, can you shed any light on what he's referencing there? He talks about the broader forces still at work.

JONES: Well, I think, you know, when you're in a system that is steeped in white supremacy, there's always going to be another reason, another cause to have to fight. And I think that's what he's referring to. I think Deen Freelon and many other faculty, staff, alumni, community members understand that, you know, we have been fighting this fight not just for Nikole Hannah-Jones, but for many people for many years. And it will not stop today, which is why we're having a press conference tomorrow to address how we move forward.

KELLY: Teddy, I'm going to give you last word because I want to ask you about something else that Hannah-Jones said this morning on CBS. She was talking about UNC, and she says she does love it. It's her alma mater. But she also said it's not my job to heal the University of North Carolina. And I wonder, as you listen to that and hear her wrestling with, I got to do the right thing for me, but I'm still proud of this place and I want it to do better - how does that sit with you?

VANN: Any time that you have Black people who are, again, taking time for themselves, that is the goal at all times. And if someone can do that at UNC and they can feel proud to be here, that's fantastic. But if you attend this university and you feel like it is not a place that's appropriate for Black people, it's not a place that's appropriate for you because you deserve better and you're not proud to be here, that's OK, too. I say that I can understand both sides completely. And speaking for myself, I am not currently proud to be a student at UNC at Chapel Hill.

KELLY: That is Taliajah "Teddy" Vann, president of the Black Student Movement at UNC-Chapel Hill. We've also been speaking with Dawna Jones, chair of the Carolina Black Caucus. Thank you to you both.

JONES: Thank you, Mary Louise.

VANN: Thank you.

KELLY: And we should note, Susan King, dean of UNC's journalism school, issued a statement and response to Hannah-Jones's decision, writing in part that the school wishes Hannah-Jones, quote, "nothing but deep success and the hope that UNC can learn from this long tenure drama about how we must change as a community of scholars."

(SOUNDBITE OF GUS DAPPERTON SONG, "COAX AND BOTANY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.