In 2018, Trevy McDonald became the first Black woman to earn tenure on the journalism faculty at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The milestone, she said, was way overdue for a prominent public university that started teaching journalism in 1909 and established a journalism school in 1950.
What bothers McDonald even more: She remains the only Black woman with tenure at the Hussman School of Journalism and Media. The associate professor, 51, criticized UNC for not conferring tenure on prizewinning journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones, who is Black, when it hired her this spring to the endowed Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism. Previous Knight chairs at the university had been granted the job-security measure.
"This is very clearly to me an equity issue," McDonald said. "This is not consistent with what we've done in the past."
In Chapel Hill and beyond, many academics are backing Hannah-Jones in what has become a remarkable tenure showdown pending before the university's board of trustees. The case has raised questions about the influence of politicians and donors on the faculty hiring process.
For Black female professors, long underrepresented among America's tenured faculty, the stakes are deeply personal.
Hannah-Jones, a New York Times writer, won the Pulitzer Prize for commentary last year for her essay on slavery, race and history in the Times initiative she led known as the 1619 Project. She also has won a MacArthur Foundation "genius" grant and other professional honors. And in 2019, UNC recognized her as a distinguished alumna of its journalism school.
All of that and more, supporters say, should have made Hannah-Jones a shoo-in for tenure. But the 1619 Project has drawn fire from former president Donald Trump and other political conservatives who contend it overstates the role of slavery in American history and undermines patriotism.
One major donor to the university weighed in last year with concerns about hiring Hannah-Jones. "I worry about the controversy of tying the UNC journalism school to the 1619 project," Walter Hussman Jr., an Arkansas newspaper publisher, wrote in an email last year to the dean of the school that bears his name, according to the news site the Assembly.
A proposal to award tenure to Hannah-Jones won support from journalism school faculty members and leaders, as well as a universitywide faculty committee and senior leaders. Final approval rests with the board of trustees. The proposal stalled several months ago after a trustee, Charles Duckett, raised questions about it. That led university officials to an alternative that didn't require board approval: giving Hannah-Jones a five-year contract without tenure. UNC announced her hiring with fanfare in late April and said she would start in July.
Faculty members exploded when they learned a few weeks later that Hannah-Jones would not have tenure. But the matter is not over. The tenure proposal is now pending before the board. State Republican leaders have strong ties to the trustees, who are appointed by North Carolina's GOP-led legislature and the board of governors of the state university system. Hannah-Jones has retained attorneys to support her case.
The episode is reverberating around the country, with Black female professors watching closely.
Last week, a chemist at the University of Maryland at Baltimore, Lisa Jones, who is African American, and unrelated to Hannah-Jones, withdrew her candidacy for a faculty position in Chapel Hill, according to a letter from the UNC chemistry department circulated on social media.
"While I have never met Ms. Hannah-Jones, as a faculty member of color, I stand in solidarity with her and could not in good conscience accept a position at UNC," Jones said in a statement to The Washington Post. "This situation is indicative of a broader issue within academia where faculty of color face several obstacles and are less likely to gain tenure."
Hannah-Jones wrote on Twitter: "I've never met this sister, Dr. Lisa Jones, but the solidarity shown me by Black women in particular during this crucible is something I will never forget."
Asked about the withdrawal of Lisa Jones from a chemistry faculty search, UNC spokeswoman Joanne Peters Denny said: "We are unable to comment on personnel matters. Carolina is committed to creating and sustaining an inclusive community of students, faculty and staff. We are dedicated to building a diverse learning environment with the highest caliber faculty and we remain committed to that mission."
Federal data shows there were about 167,000 tenured faculty members in 2019 at schools known as doctoral universities. Of those, 1.9% identified as Black or African American women. The data shows that the share at UNC was 3.1%.
Tenure matters at universities. Having a sizable number of professors with job security helps ensure academic freedom and continuity in teaching and research that can outlast changes in administration.
Daina Ramey Berry, 51, a history professor and the first person of color, man or woman, to chair her department at the University of Texas at Austin, said the roadblocks for Black women on the tenure track are many and often unseen by others. The process is grueling, she said, and wears out some before they earn tenure and others even after they have it.
"There is a lot of labor women of color perform for a university that's invisible," Ramey Berry said. "We are asked to do so many things that people just don't realize." That includes, she said, expectations they will serve as mentors to Black students, whether they are in their program or not, because there are so few other Black professors. And it includes being asked to serve on an outsize number of committees that want a Black female faculty representative but have such a small pool from which to choose.
Lisa Woolfork, an associate professor of English at the University of Virginia, said Black women in academia face "the same obstacles that Black women face in general. . . . They are very much rooted in the same racism that impacts every Black person's life in this country."
The work of Black scholars, Woolfork said, is sometimes not seen as academically valuable because it is about Black people. Or it is otherwise dismissed or belittled. "Why is it that when Black women do achieve, when Black women are at the top of their game, there still is something, some institution, some set of policies or just abject racism that tries to diminish those achievements?" Woolfork asked.
Sharon Holland, 57, a distinguished professor of American studies at UNC and the first Black woman to chair the department, said the university's handling of the Hannah-Jones case is demoralizing. On the UNC faculty since 2014, Holland said she has little patience for those who don't see that the journalist has developed a portfolio of intellectual accomplishment that deserves to be taken seriously. "It's disgusting. It's just ridiculous," Holland said. "I'm exercised by it. I'm just fed up."
Many faculty members in colleges and universities are neither tenured nor on the tenure track. They work under contracts of various lengths, full time or part time, and they can be quickly let go. Higher education couldn't function without them.
Tenured faculty, though, wield enormous power in a tradition known as shared governance. They may get steamrolled at times by administrators. But they help schools take a collective and deliberate approach to matters involving curriculum, admission standards and degree requirements.
At the top of the academic ladder are full professors with tenure. Black women are more scarce at that rank than other levels of the faculty. There were 622 tenured full professors at UNC in 2019, federal data shows. Eight identified as Black or African American women - 1.3%.
"We believe there is value in ensuring our students are able to learn from faculty representing diverse communities," UNC Provost Robert Blouin said in a statement. "Like most of our peer institutions, Carolina continues to have work to do to ensure that this commitment is realized. We have put tremendous financial resources into recruiting and retaining highly qualified diverse faculty, and while we believe those efforts have been successful, we know that our work is not done."
Erika Wilson, 43, an associate professor of law at UNC who is Black, said she will be promoted to full professor on July 1. As she follows the Hannah-Jones case, Wilson said, she is mindful of an adage that Black people often have to be "twice as good to get half as far." She said it pained her to see Hannah-Jones hired without tenure. "It hurts," she said. "It's a knife in the heart."
Hannah-Jones sees larger significance in her case. On May 20, she tweeted that the fight was "bigger than me." On May 27, she said in a statement: "I had no desire to bring turmoil or a political firestorm to the university that I love, but I am obligated to fight back against a wave of anti-democratic suppression that seeks to prohibit the free exchange of ideas, silence Black voices and chill free speech."
The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which represents her in the matter, has warned UNC it could face a challenge in court. "We will fight to ensure that her rights are vindicated," the legal group said in a statement.
UNC spokesman Joel Curran said the university has communicated with the legal group about the employment of Hannah-Jones. "We look forward to continued dialogue with her counsel," Curran said. As of Tuesday, the university had given no word on when or whether trustees will act on the tenure proposal.
Meta DuEwa Jones, 48, an associate professor of English and comparative literature at UNC, who is unrelated to Hannah-Jones or Lisa Jones, recalled that she underwent a tense journey to earn tenure years ago when she was teaching at UT-Austin. She lamented the "hyper-surveillance" that Hannah-Jones and other Black women receive within the academy.
Meta Jones said she can't understand why UNC trustees haven't yet approved tenure for Hannah-Jones. "It sends a message to Black women faculty like me," she said. "I have to say, I am disappointed. I am disheartened."