A Heartfelt Letter to Renowned Journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones—Pulitzer Prize, Peabody, MacArthur Foundation “Genius Grant” winner, and UNC-Chapel Hill 2019 Distinguished Alumna—from UNC Student Leaders and Advocates
Thursday, May 20, 2021
To Renowned Journalist and Professor Nikole Hannah-Jones,
As a collective of undersigned student leaders and advocates here at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, we write directly to you today. We are frustrated and disappointed that our University, the flagship institution of the UNC System, has failed not only you, an outstanding alumna, but its students, its faculty, its community as a whole—and yes, the spirit upon which Carolina was founded: Lux Libertas—light and liberty.
As student leaders, advocates, and representatives here at Carolina, we are inspired and moved by your work and have been privileged to engage with it within and beyond the classroom. Your dedication to unwaveringly and profoundly uncovering truth serves as a testament to what both journalism and academia ought to be. But we also realize that the journey to uncovering truth—particularly in the context of America’s racial history—can be fraught with challenges and opposition.
We firmly believe that Carolina’s undergraduate, graduate, and professional students alike would benefit immensely from the opportunity to learn from you and your work. Your contributions to social justice and racial equity are empowering, but we also recognize the poignant and fundamental charge of your work—that each American must work to demand transparency, accountability, and truth from our leaders. Although we remain hopeful that our University leaders grant you the tenured contract you deserve, we acknowledge that UNC does not create an environment for Black academics to flourish and it would be hypocritical of us as student leaders to ask you to reside in an atmosphere that does not uplift, protect, or respect you.
UNC needs you more than you need UNC. We recognize that your livelihood and future is being leveraged as a symbol, as it has become quite clear to us that political partisanship and an unwillingness on the part of those charged with responding to the desires of North Carolina’s college students are directly harming our right to a sound and quality education.
As such, students have found ourselves asking: what does it mean for one of the world’s most prestigious institutions to be stifled by a suffocating agenda that threatens liberty and scholarship, equity and justice? What does it mean for academia at large when sound tenure recommendations, made by devoted faculty leadership, can be overridden without justification nor academic-related reason?
While University leadership claims to contextualize both our present and our history in its decision making processes, we will not stand by as it punishes you and your scholarly work. We cannot stand by as our University routinely diminishes and undercuts marginalized and BIPOC voices in academia in an effort to bend toward partisan pressures rooted in a fear of America’s historical truths.
The recent decision to deny you tenure follows a series of events in which University leadership has downplayed and dismissed antiracism efforts. This includes disregarding the 2020 Roadmap for Racial Equity signed by over 1,200 UNC faculty, students, staff, alumni, and local community members, establishing a “Monument Trust” for Silent Sam in 2019, and the constant exclusion of input from students, faculty, and communities of color in their decision making. We have lost faith in our University to uphold the values so important to our student body and have lost trust in our University to treat academics of color with the respect and dignity that they deserve.
Walking into this University, unfortunately, you are walking into a place where respect is minimal, criticism is high, and quantity is all too few for academics of color—especially Black women. Knowing this and recognizing the critical importance of upholding the integrity and impact of your work, we cannot ask you to come here. We respect your work and your contribution to this country’s history too much for you or your scholarship to be the constant target of disrespect here at Carolina, be it from our leaders in South Building, the Board of Trustees, or Board of Governors.
At UNC, however, you will also find a community of committed student leaders—activists, advocates, and representatives who stand behind you, recognize the impact of your work, and will support you from your first step on campus, should that be the decision you make. You will witness a system of students, faculty, staff, and community members who will elevate your work and steadfastly defend its tenets.
We firmly recognize these ongoing threats to academia, to journalism, to equity in and outside of higher education, and to you. It is because of these threats that Carolina continues to lose diverse talent. It is why this cycle of oppression, suppression, and injustice at UNC will not change unless acted upon directly. These threats exemplify what our University and its “leaders” stand for, and who they want to leave behind. It is these threats that we hope to confront head on as student leaders, advocates, and honest representatives of our nation’s oldest public university.
We stand with you and alongside you.
Neel Swamy, President, Graduate and Professional Student Government
Collyn Smith, Undergraduate Vice President, UNC Student Government Executive Branch
Kathleen L. Furtado, Senior Vice President, Graduate and Professional Student Government
Kartik Tyagi, Undergraduate Secretary, UNC Student Government Executive Branch
Chad Lloyd, Vice President for Communications, Graduate and Professional Student Government
Keisha Solanki, Undergraduate Chief of Staff, UNC Student Government Executive Branch
Amanda Smythers, Chief of Staff, Graduate and Professional Student Government
Michelle Thomas, Vice President for Diversity and Inclusion, Graduate and Professional Student Government
Chaz Crosby, Senior Advisor to the Student Body President, UNC Student Government Executive Branch
Isha Padhye, Senior Advisor to the Student Body President, UNC Student Government Executive Branch
Ananya Tadikonda, Senior Advisor to the Student Body President, UNC Student Government Executive Branch
Greear Webb, Senior Advisor to the Student Body President, UNC Student Government Executive Branch
Aashna Shukla, Undergraduate Treasurer, UNC Student Government Executive Branch
Nina Dakoriya, Director of State and External Affairs, UNC Student Government Executive Branch
Elliana Alexander, President, UNC Residence Hall Association
Anu Joy, Director of the Department of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion and Chief Diversity Officer, UNC Student Government Executive Branch
Ethan Phillips, Director of the Department of Student Wellness and Safety, UNC Student Government Executive Branch
Claire Hutto, Director of the Department of Civic Engagement and Outreach Services, UNC Student Government Executive Branch
Abigail Adams, Assistant Director of Interfaith and Religion, UNC Student Government Executive Branch
Victoria Bryant, Assistant Director of Research and Innovation, UNC Student Government Executive Branch
Salena Braye-Bulls, Assistant Director of Basic Needs and Affordability, UNC Student Government Executive Branch
Maha Butt, Assistant Director of Professional Development and Career Services, UNC Student Government Executive Branch
Austin Geer, Director of Programming and Policy Implementation, UNC Student Government Executive Branch
Nikalus Ward, Assistant Director for Sexuality and Gender Inclusion, UNC Student Government Executive Branch
Shamar Wilson, Deputy Chief of Staff, UNC Student Government Executive Branch
Erin Schlachter, Chief Publicity Specialist, UNC Student Government Executive Branch
Sneha Pasupula, Oversight and Advocacy Chair, UNC Student Government Legislative Branch
Anna Fiore, Ethics Chair, UNC Student Government Legislative Branch
Samuel Robinson, Rules and Judiciary Chair, UNC Student Government Legislative Branch
Andrew Richards, Undergraduate Senator, UNC Student Government Legislative Branch
Husein Syed, Undergraduate Senator, UNC Student Government Legislative Branch