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Alleged Hiring Discrimination Creates Controversy At UNC-Chapel Hill

In early 2021, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill offered a tenure-track position as the Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism to Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones, creator of the 1619 Project. However, after an ‘outcry’ from conservative trustees and donors, the university reneged on its job offer, instead extending a 5-year fixed term contract. Previous Knight Chair holders have been granted tenure, and the legal team for Ms. Hannah-Jones has indicated that any offer that comes without tenure is “unacceptable.” They have indicated their possible intent to file suit in the matter, if the original offer is not reinstated. She has since rejected an offer of tenure.

Treatment Of Hannah-Jones Is A ‘Radical Departure’

The Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism was established in the 1980’s, along with several other Knight Chairs at UNC. All the past holders who have been hired at the Chapel Hill campus have received tenure, but the board declined to act on Hannah-Jones’ application after several trustees (and high-profile donors) expressed “political objections” – Ms. Hannah-Jones’ work, both for the 1619 Project and otherwise, deals frequently with issues of race and historical racism in the United States, which runs afoul of many people’s perceptions of the United States’ past. 

The offered 5-year, non-tenure-track contract, was extended in the spirit of a “work-around,” but Ms. Hannah-Jones and her legal team advised UNC that she had not been informed of the evolution of the trustees’ opinions, and would not accept the contract, arguing that to do so would be a tacit acceptance of discrimination against her. Ms. Hannah-Jones’ legal team threatened a federal lawsuit in a letter written to UNC officials, arguing that her rights were violated by the board’s actions in declining to even consider her for tenure.

Protected Characteristics Matter

While the ultimate outcome of the situation remains to be seen as of this writing, there are several factors that Ms. Hannah-Jones can cite in favor of her allegations of discrimination. The mere fact that she has not yet been officially hired by UNC-Chapel Hill does not mean she cannot file suit alleging discrimination – she is still, in theory, being denied work on the basis of a protected characteristic (race, gender, and under North Carolina law, political opinion), which is the fundamental tenet of a discrimination claim. 

The crux of any suit filed by Ms. Hannah-Jones is whether or not her attorneys will be able to establish that the disparate treatment she received (because it is plainly obvious that she has been treated differently than other past Knight Chair holders) is linked to a protected characteristic. North Carolina law bars undue political influence, but so much of it has been at play in this matter that it may be difficult to divorce the decision from politics of all kinds. 

Call A South Carolina Employment Discrimination Lawyer

While South Carolina’s law differs somewhat from North Carolina’s in terms of protecting political opinion, the point remains that if you are denied work due to a protected characteristic, you may be able to seek redress. Attorney A. Christopher Potts and the law firm of Hitchcock & Potts have handled many of these types of cases, and we are ready to try and help you navigate yours. Contact our offices today to schedule a consultation. 

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