After months of grappling with the university over her tenureship, Nikole Hannah-Jones announced Tuesday she would not stay on at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, choosing instead, along with writer Ta-Nehisi Coates, to join the faculty of Howard University, one of the most prestigious historically Black universities in the country.
It’s a significant decision, as Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) don’t always have the pull or the resources that predominantly White institutions have to bring in big-name faculty. But Hannah-Jones, who has spent the better part of a month watching her worth be debated by the UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees, and Coates could be the ones to shift the tide.
“I have been very, very thoughtful about my decision to go to an historically Black college, and what I decided is since the second grade, when I started being bussed into White schools, I’ve spent my entire life proving that I belong in White spaces that were not built for Black people,” Hannah-Jones said, in an appearance on “CBS This Morning” with Gayle King.
But after everything that happened with UNC-Chapel Hill, Hannah-Jones was done, she said.
“I decided I didn’t want to do that anymore,” she said. “That Black professionals should feel free and actually perhaps an obligation to go to our own institutions and bring our talents and resources to our own institutions and help to build them up as well.”
Excitement builds among Howard alumni
Howard University is the most well-known and esteemed HBCU in the country, and this isn’t the first time the school has attracted a top journalist as faculty. Samuel Yette, the first Black Washington correspondent for Newsweek Magazine, also taught at the school in the 1970s and 1980s. And since its founding in 1867, the Washington, D.C university has been a prominent institution of Black culture and Black life, with an alumni list boasting the likes of author Toni Morrison, actor Chadwick Boseman and Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall.
Alfred Mathewson, an emeritus professor of law and former co-dean of the University of New Mexico School of Law, also went to Howard, where he finished his undergraduate degree in business management in 1975. Before enrolling, he had to decide between attending UNC-Chapel Hill or Howard, akin to the choice Hannah-Jones faced.
In the end, Howard won out.
“It was almost unthinkable at the time,” he told CNN. “Everyone who knew me tried to talk me out of it. It was a big thing at the time for a Black kid to be accepted into Carolina and into a White school.”
The decision was the correct one for Mathewson, who praised his experience as a student there. Now, to see Hannah-Jones and Coates at the school is exhilarating, he said.
“I was excited. As soon as I saw the story, I tweeted it. And my friends from Howard, they were posting on Facebook,” he said. “There was a great deal of excitement.”
Ongisa Ichile-Mckenzie, the director of Southern Marylanders for Racial Equality, graduated from Howard in 2003 with a degree in legal communications. She echoed Mathewson’s excitement, calling the hiring of Hannah-Jones and Coates “a win for the students.”
“Most of us are very excited because many of us are familiar with their work. We’ve read their work, we’ve gone to school with Ta-Nehisi Coates or what have you … So I feel like the buzz is positive,” she said.
Jessica Jones, a 2004 graduate of Howard, echoed the sentiment, expressing explicit excitement for the new Center of Journalism and Democracy that Hannah-Jones is set to found.
“Nikole Hannah-Jones helps to increase Howard’s prestige but also changes things a bit for the school,” Jones, who studied journalism at Howard, said, suggesting it may influence other future faculty and increase student applicants.
Ichile-Mckenzie noted that the move by Coates and Hannah-Jones is in line with similar trends being seen in other areas, as some high-profile Black athletes, for example, forgo the Division I schools and instead choose the HBCU route. She credited the change to a larger culture shift taking place over the last few years.
“Black people are safeguarding our mental health, and we are understanding our value more so than ever,” she said.
At predominately White institutions, Black and other faculty and students of color can’t just be students or faculty members, both Ichile-Mckenzie and Mathewson said.
“(If there are) racial incidents on campus, and students have to face a choice: Do I deal with what just happened, do I let it go, or do I concentrate on exams?” Mathewson said. “As a faculty member, it’s the same thing.”
And with the battle that Hannah-Jones already faced in attempting to show she deserved tenure at UNC-Chapel Hill, Mathewson predicted that doing her work at the institution if she had stayed “was going to be an ongoing struggle.”
Decision by Hannah-Jones is understandable, UNC alumna says
For Hanna Wondmagegn, a 2021 alumna of UNC-Chapel Hill’s journalism school, the decision by Hannah-Jones was awe-inspiring. Wondmagegn said she could relate to much of what Hannah-Jones wrote in her statement.
“I was absolutely elated to see her go somewhere where she’d be appreciated,” Wondmagegn said. “To see what she said (in her statement) about respecting yourself and sticking up for yourself, about no longer wanting to fight these battles, that just did so much for me as a Black woman journalist. That did everything and more.”
Though she’s sad that current students at UNC-Chapel Hill will not be able to benefit from Hannah-Jones’ expertise and mere presence in the school, her decision, Wondmagegn said, is empowering.
She’s not the only UNC-Chapel Hill person that feels that way. Following the announcement, the Carolina Black Caucus, a group of Black faculty and staff at UNC-Chapel Hill, released a statement fully supporting the decision by Hannah-Jones.
“While our community fought tirelessly to ensure that university leadership provide the tenure offer that she rightfully earned, we completely understand the choice not to come to work at an institution that willfully disrespects you at every turn,” they wrote. “We honor her determination and will continue to celebrate her excellence.”
Others may follow in her footsteps
In an initial statement released by Howard University, Hannah-Jones said she hopes the decision by her and Coates encourages others to make a similar choice in bringing their talents to an HBCU. In a separate follow-up statement from Hannah-Jones, she expanded on that, rebuking the ways that success is often defined by “gaining entry to and succeeding in historically white institutions.”
“At some point when you have proven yourself and fought your way into institutions that were not built for you, when you’ve proven you can compete and excel at the highest level, you have to decide that you are done forcing yourself in,” she said.
CNN’s Eryn Mathewson contributed to this report.