Statement from the Knight Chairs in Journalism to UNC’s Board of Trustees

Damon Kiesow
3 min readMay 20, 2021


We, the community of Knight Chairs in Journalism, are opposed to the University of North Carolina Board of Trustees’ recent decision to deny Nikole Hannah-Jones tenure following her appointment as Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism. We stand in solidarity with Hannah-Jones, whose accomplishments are exemplary, and the faculty at the Hussman School of Journalism and Media, who supported her application for tenure.

The Knight Chairs are professional journalists around the country who hold professorships endowed by the Knight Foundation. Our purpose is to bring our years of industry knowledge and experience into the classroom, foster innovation and contribute thought leadership to the academy. We were thrilled when UNC announced that it had selected Hannah-Jones — a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist and MacArthur Fellowship “Genius Grant” recipient — to join our ranks.

The fact that UNC’s trustees chose to withhold tenure from Hannah-Jones speaks volumes about the pettiness of those who would try to diminish her 20-year track record of award-winning journalism.

We believe independence is at the heart of journalism in a free society, and freedom of inquiry the heart of a research university. These principles allow citizens and scholars to ask questions that move society closer to the truth. Without them, journalists and researchers become tools of the government. Tenure is designed specifically to protect those rights for faculty members.

That is why the signatories below are concerned. In denying tenure to Hannah-Jones, UNC’s board of trustees is putting politics before academic integrity. Tenure protects professors from the fads and emotions that trample unpopular ideas; it allows for concepts that challenge the status quo.

The Board of Trustees appear to be uncomfortable with Hannah-Jones’ body of work, including the view of American history she painstakingly documented and beautifully presented in the 1619 Project. You can agree or disagree with honestly held interpretations of history, but to sanction someone for her point of view is the opposite of freedom of speech.

Hannah-Jones, a 2003 master’s graduate of UNC, has equivalent academic credentials to the prior two chairs at the school. Both received tenure upon appointment. The unequal treatment is clear in this case.

Hannah-Jones and the UNC School of Journalism have taken the high road by agreeing to a 5-year appointment without the protections and prestige of tenure. We are certain the students at UNC will benefit by her teaching and leadership. But the lesson the Board of Trustees has delivered is that far too often women and persons of color are told to accept a discount ticket to a seat of power.

The trustees of the University of North Carolina should be ashamed of their decision and should move quickly to accept the recommendation of the school’s faculty, Dean and Provost and approve Hannah-Jones’ application for tenure.

Signed, [alphabetically]

  • Bill Adair, Knight Professor of the Practice of Journalism and Public Policy, Duke University
  • John Affleck, Knight Chair in Sports Journalism and Society, Penn State University
  • Rosental Alves, Knight Chair in International Journalism, University of Texas at Austin
  • Deborah Blum, director, Knight Science Journalism Fellowship program, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
  • Alberto Cairo, Knight Chair in Visual Journalism, University of Miami
  • Lynette Clemetson, director, Knight-Wallace Fellowships for Journalists, University of Michigan
  • Sarah Cohen, Knight Chair in Data Journalism, Arizona State University
  • Aly Colón, Knight Professor of Media Ethics, Washington and Lee University
  • Eric Freedman, Knight Chair in Environmental Journalism, Michigan State University
  • Jeremy Gilbert, Knight Chair in Digital Media Strategy, Northwestern University
  • Mark Goodman, Knight Chair in Scholastic Journalism, Kent State University
  • Lindsay Grace, Knight Chair in Interactive Media, University of Miami
  • Francine L. Huff, Knight Chair for Student Achievement, Florida A&M University
  • Brant Houston, Knight Chair of Investigative Reporting, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign,
  • Kathy Kiely, Lee Hills Chair in Free Press Studies, Missouri School of Journalism
  • Damon Kiesow, Knight Chair in Digital Editing and Producing, Missouri School of Journalism
  • Mindy McAdams, Knight Chair in Journalism Technologies and the Democratic Process, University of Florida
  • Michael Pollan, Knight Chair in Science and Technology Reporting, University of California, Berkeley
  • Dana Priest, Knight Chair in Public Affairs Journalism, University of Maryland
  • Sabriya Rice, Knight Chair of Health and Medical Journalism, University of Georgia
  • Jodi Upton, Knight Chair in Data and Explanatory Journalism, Syracuse University
  • Diane Winston, Knight Chair in Media and Religion, University of Southern California
  • Stephen Wolgast, Knight Chair in Audience and Community Engagement for News, University of Kansas



Damon Kiesow

Knight Chair in Digital Editing and Producing @mujschool. Formerly Director of Product @McClatchy Also: @BostonGlobe, @Poynter, @AOL, M.S. HFID @bentleyu