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We live in an age where it can be challenging to keep up with the increasing speed of news cycles while managing our own busy day-to-day lives. There’s a vast amount of news available to us every day – but we may not have enough time to consume it, and we often have even less time to reflect on it and consider how it may impact us.
In the midst of this “information overload,” there’s one recent story that has fully captured my attention (and, hopefully, the attention of all social sector boards): the story of Nikole Hannah-Jones and her struggle to obtain tenure at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
One of the reasons that this story has resonated with me is that I think it underscores a fundamental lesson about social sector boards:
The role that nonprofit boards play in organizational strategy and decision-making can have both a positive and a negative impact, and – when the stakes are especially high – it really matters who is around the board room table. It matters for sense-making and decision-making, it matters in terms of how the decision will be received by critical stakeholders, and it matters in terms of the way that the institution and its board will be viewed long into the future.
In April 2021, UNC-Chapel Hill announced that it would appoint Nikole Hannah-Jones to the Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism at the university’s Hussman School of Journalism and Media. Hannah-Jones is an investigative journalist who is especially well-known for her coverage of civil rights. Among her long list of awards and accomplishments, in 2017 Hannah-Jones was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship (commonly known as a "genius grant"), and in 2020 she won a Pulitzer Prize for Commentary for her work on The 1619 Project, an ongoing project of The New York Times (for whom Hannah-Jones has worked since 2015) that aims to reframe the country's history by placing the consequences of slavery and contributions of Black Americans at the center of our national narrative.
Traditionally, the Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism is a tenured professorship. Hannah-Jones went through the typical vetting process with the faculty and tenure committees, and was recommended for tenure by these entities. But in May, UNC-Chapel Hill offered her the position – but without tenure – after the board of trustees refrained from voting to approve her tenure.
After protests from the university and significant public pressure in response to the board’s decision to decline tenure, the board held a special session on June 30th. During that closed meeting, it reversed its previous decision by approving Hannah-Jones for tenure. Hannah-Jones subsequently declined the position at UNC-Chapel Hill on July 6th. She announced that – instead – she would be joining the faculty at Howard University, a historically Black college and university, as the inaugural Knight Chair in Race and Reporting.
While we at BoardSource have no inside knowledge of this case beyond what has been publicly reported, I believe there are significant lessons for boards that are worth exploring.
Read the full article about nonprofit boards by Jim Taylor at BoardSource.