“This school would be nothing without Black people.”

UNC-Chapel Hill’s Board of Trustees sat behind doors that were forcibly closed on students Wednesday afternoon to discuss the tenure application of the acclaimed journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones after weeks of high-profile media attention and outcry from current and former students, faculty, and community members.

The final vote was 9-4 in favor of awarding tenure; trustees Haywood Cochrane, Jr., David Boliek, Jr., Allie Ray McCullen, and John Preyer were the dissenting voters. McCullen and Preyer also voted against the renaming of campus buildings in a 2020 meeting, during which McCullen remarked that renaming the buildings would be like “letting the prisoners run the prison.” (Preyer made a motion at a different meeting to create a ”day of forgiveness” for four of the white supremacists whose names adorn campus buildings.) 

Prior to the vote, the trustees began their process in closed session without explaining to the students and onlookers that they were following standard procedure for the discussion of tenure applications. UNC students, unfamiliar with how the proceedings were to unfold, remained in the room until they were removed by UNC Campus Police.

In several videos on social media, including one shot by Chapel Hill Town Council candidate Paris Miller-Foushee, campus police can be seen shoving protesters back. An officer strikes a student with his cell phone, knocking off her face mask in the process. The student, Black Student Movement vice president Julia Clark, held an ice pack to her face while waiting to be allowed to reenter the building, and later posted a photo to Twitter of the bruise left by the blow. She declined to comment on the situation.

N.C. Policy Watch reported in May that Nikole Hannah-Jones was not considered for tenure along with her offer to join the university’s faculty as Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism in early 2021, breaking the precedent set by previous Knight Chair appointments within the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media. The special meeting took place after the decision to deny tenure garnered attention from national media outlets and outcry from the university community, partners, and alumni, and even then, it was only scheduled after Student Body President Lamar Richards–a voting member of the Board of Trustees–petitioned to hold it with the support from other board members to consider offering a formal decision.

Richards also explained to the students in attendance at the special meeting that he voted to move the meeting into closed session to follow procedure, and in accordance with Hannah-Jones’s and her legal team’s wishes, following the students’ altercation with campus police. 

Hannah-Jones commented on the approval of her tenure through her legal team.

“I want to acknowledge the tremendous outpouring of support I have received from students, faculty, colleagues, and the general public over the last month – including the young people who showed up today at the Board of Trustees meeting, putting themselves at physical risk,” she said in a statement. “I am honored and grateful for and inspired by you all. I know that this vote would not have occurred without you.”

On her personal Twitter, she simply responded to the news by posting a photo of the drink she was having to celebrate.

The Board of Trustees also had its own comments to offer after the vote.

“Our university is not a place to cancel people or ideas,” said Vice Chair Gene Davis, who was presiding over the meeting in place of Richard Stevens, the board’s chair. “Neither is it a place for judging people and calling them names like ‘woke’ or ‘racist.’”

After the meeting adjourned, members of the Black Student Movement confronted Davis and Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz.

“I do not want you to ever say that this university is great when the only great thing about this university is standing right here,” Clark said, gesturing toward the students. “Everything else in this room has made this university unbearable, traumatic, and toxic for every Black student that has been here.”

Davis asked what could be done to assist Black students on campus. Members of the Black Student Movement reminded them that former members of the Movement had provided a list of demands to administration in the past. They said another list would be presented to the board in the near future.

Support independent local journalism. Join the INDY Press Club to help us keep fearless watchdog reporting and essential arts and culture coverage viable in the Triangle. 

Follow Digital Content Manager Sara Pequeño on Twitter or send an email to spequeno@indyweek.com.