Howard University lands Nikole Hannah-Jones and Ta-Nehisi Coates on the same day

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On Tuesday, Howard University made two high-profile hires, welcoming journalists Ta-Nehisi Coates and Nikole Hannah-Jones to its faculty.

“It is my pleasure to welcome to Howard two of today’s most respected and influential journalists,” the university's president, Wayne A.I. Frederick, said in a statement. “At such a critical time for race relations in our country, it is vital that we understand the role of journalism in steering our national conversation and social progress. Not only must our newsrooms reflect the communities where they are reporting, but we need to infuse the profession with diverse talent.”

According to a press release from the historically black university, Coates, an award-winning author and Pulitzer Prize finalist who worked as a national correspondent for the Atlantic, will join the faculty as the Sterling Brown Chair in the Department of English. In response to his appointment, Coates, who is currently writing a screenplay for Warner Brothers’ upcoming Black Superman film, credited Howard for much of his success.

UNITED STATES -  JUNE 19: Author Ta-Nehisi Coates testifies about reparations for the descendants of slaves during a hearing before the House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, at the Capitol in Washington on Wednesday June 19, 2019. (Photo by Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
Ta-Nehisi Coates testifies about reparations for slavery before a House Judiciary subcommittee in 2019. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)

“I would not be who I am without the faculty at Howard,” he said in a statement. “I heard a wise man once say, ‘A man who hates home will never be happy.’ And it is in the pursuit of wisdom and happiness that I return to join the esteemed faculty of Howard University. This is the faculty that molded me. This is the faculty that strengthened me. Personally, I know of no higher personal honor than this.”

Hannah-Jones, who won a Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 2020 for her essay as part of the New York Times Magazine’s 1619 Project, which examined the role slavery played in the formation of America, will start at the university this summer as a tenured faculty member, serving as the inaugural Knight Chair in Race and Journalism. She will also establish a Center for Journalism and Democracy at Howard that will train journalism students from historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) to “accurately and urgently [cover] the challenges of our democracy with a clarity, skepticism, rigor and historical dexterity that is too often missing from today’s journalism.”

“I am so incredibly honored to be joining one of the most important and storied educational institutions in our country and to work alongside the illustrious faculty of the Cathy Hughes School of Communications and the brilliant students it draws in,” Hannah-Jones said in a statement. “One of my few regrets is that I did not attend Howard as an undergraduate, and so coming here to teach fulfills a dream I have long carried. I hope that the decision that Ta-Nehisi and I made to bring our talents to an HBCU will lead others to make a similar choice.”

ATLANTA, GEORGIA - MAY 16: Author Nikole Hannah-Jones speaks on stage during the 137th Commencement at Morehouse College on May 16, 2021 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Marcus Ingram/Getty Images)
Nikole Hannah-Jones speaks at Morehouse College's commencement on May 16. (Marcus Ingram/Getty Images)

Hannah-Jones’s decision to join the faculty at Howard came a week after the trustees at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill reversed course and voted to grant her a tenured position (a Knight chair, like the position at Howard). Initially, the board denied her tenure after questions were raised about her work. That decision sparked an outcry from historians, UNC faculty members and students.

In a Tuesday interview with Gayle King on “CBS This Morning,” Hannah-Jones said that turning down UNC’s offer of tenure was “not a decision I wanted to make.” She said she agreed with the assessment of more than 30 faculty members at UNC’s Hussman School of Journalism who signed a letter calling the initial decision to deny her a tenured position “racist.”

“This was a position that since the 1980s came with tenure,” Hannah-Jones said. “The Knight chairs are designed for professional journalists who have been working in the field to come into academia, and every other chair before me, who also happened to be white, received that position with tenure.”

UNC chancellor Kevin M. Guskiewicz released a statement Tuesday, just hours after Hannah-Jones’s TV appearance. “I am disappointed that Nikole Hannah-Jones will not be joining our campus community as a member of our faculty. In my conversations with Nikole, I have told her I appreciated her passion for Carolina and her desire to teach on our campus. While I regret she won’t be coming to Chapel Hill, the students, faculty and staff of Howard University will benefit from her knowledge and expertise. We wish her the best.”

Hannah-Jones and Coates discussed the controversy during a Tuesday interview with MSNBC host Joy Reid.

“To do everything you were told to do in order to be successful and then have them change the rules at the end … it just confirms my life’s work,” Hannah-Jones said. “Everything that Ta-Nehisi and I write about, about how Black people are treated in this country, and even if you follow all of their rules in the end, it doesn’t guarantee that you’ll be treated fairly.”

Coates chimed in to sing the praises of his new colleague. “What has happened is that the Black students and the white students and, you know, students of all races and creeds have been denied the counsel of arguably the most decorated journalist in America right now,” he said. “As much as I’m happy she’s coming to Howard, I’m also sad for those students.”

According to Howard University, which with other HBCUs has experienced a windfall of donations during the pandemic, the appointments of Coates and Hannah-Jones are supported by nearly $20 million from an anonymous donor, as well as the Knight Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Ford Foundation.

Founded in 1867, Howard has more than 9,000 students and is fondly known as a mecca for its leadership in Black higher education. It has drawn increased attention recently as the alma mater of Vice President Kamala Harris.

“This is not a consolation prize for me,” Hannah-Jones said of her new roles. “The tradition of doctors, lawyers, professionals coming out of HBCUs still, is an amazing tradition to be a part of, and we don’t need to feel like we need to get validation from these other institutions. We can come home and build our own.”

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