I’ve wondered a lot during the past several weeks if the saga with UNC’s Board of Trustees denying tenure to Nikole Hannah-Jones would ever have gotten the traction—the national attention—that it has gotten if N.C. Policy Watch reporter Joe Killian hadn’t noticed and brought to light the fact that Hannah-Jones’s hiring as Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism was an anomaly, in that it came without tenure.

Even Hannah-Jones herself was loath to publicize the arrangement, and seemed resigned to coming on board at UNC without tenure because, as she said in her statement, though she was crushed not to receive tenure, she had already invested so much in the process of applying for the position.

She writes:

“Being asked to return to teach at Carolina had felt like a homecoming; it felt like another way to give back to the institution that had given so much to me. And now I was being told that the Board of Trustees would not vote on my tenure and that the only way for me to come teach in the fall would be for me to sign a five-year contract under which I could be considered for tenure at a later, unspecified date. By that time, I had invested months in the process. I had secured an apartment in North Carolina so that I would be ready to teach that January. My editors at The New York Times had already supplied quotes for the press release of the big announcement. I did not want to face the humiliation of letting everyone know that I would be the first Knight Chair at the university to be denied tenure. I did not want to wage a fight with my alma mater or bring to the school and to my future colleagues the political firestorm that has dogged me since The 1619 Project published. So, crushed, I signed the five-year contract in February, and I did not say a word about it publicly.”

But, after the news of Hannah-Jones’s hiring at UNC-Chapel Hill was announced, Killian reported on “blistering attacks” on Hannah-Jones from two groups with political ties to two UNC Board of Governors members. Then he deduced that, unlike Knight Chairs past, UNC was hiring Hannah-Jones on a five-year contract, rather than with the tenure that came with the position for all other hires in the past.

We all know what happened next.

I guess I’m not the only one who’s wondered about Killian’s role in UNC’s latest comms debacle.

This Poynter profile goes in depth on Killian’s work to bring the tenure situation to light and how he followed the story from start to finish, when Hannah-Jones, who called Killian the “excellent local reporter” who broke the story, gave him her first exclusive print interview after she announced she would not be coming to UNC-Chapel Hill after all, and would serve as the inaugural Knight Chair in Race and Journalism at Howard University instead.

From the piece:

“It’s not a secret, but several things happened with Killian’s coverage of this story that are worth pointing out.

First, his work is built on classic beat reporting. In this case, though, the beat wasn’t higher education, but another Killian had covered for years — politics.

Killian spent 10 years at the (Greensboro, North Carolina) News & Record before coming to N.C. Policy Watch almost five years ago.

‘What happened really is I’m not primarily a higher education reporter,’ Killian said. ‘Most of my career has been spent covering politics.’

That matters in North Carolina, he said, where the governing boards of universities are nearly all former Republican lawmakers, and active Republican lobbyists and activists. When he says it’s all political, he doesn’t mean there’s messy office drama. It’s actual politics.

So when a whisper campaign started about Hannah-Jones’ possible appointment, which shouldn’t happen because it’s supposed to be a confidential personnel matter, Killian heard about it.”

And then he broke the news which changed the trajectory for Hannah-Jones, two universities, hundreds of faculty members and students, and, likely, for many more, to to be seen.

Speaking of folks who are impressed with Killian’s reporting, The Washington Post columnist Margaret Sullivan, who weighed in on the tenure story recently in the pages of that national publication, thinks he’d be a quality hire for some big news organization (like, say, The Washington Post?):

You know who would be a quality hire for some big news organization? @JoekillianPW. No idea if he’d even want that. But very dogged, thoughtful, scoopy reporting.

— 💫 Margaret Sullivan (@Sulliview) July 6, 2021

Veteran journalist and co-founder of the Elon-based N.C. Local News Workshop Melanie Sill has the only correct response to that proposition:

My choice: we can support his important work and others right here in North Carolina, where he has impact because he knows the subject matter, has sources and can bring context. National isn’t better or more important (I know @sulliview agrees!)

— Melanie Sill (@melaniesill) July 6, 2021

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