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'Hard to overlook': Top Black chemist rejects UNC over Hannah-Jones flap

'Hard to overlook': Top Black chemist rejects UNC over Hannah-Jones flap

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CHAPEL HILL — UNC-Chapel Hill lost a top faculty recruit this week because of the furor over the Board of Trustees not offering tenure to journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones. Some faculty fear this loss might not be the last.

The UNC-CH chemistry department sent a letter to Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz and other administrators on Tuesday explaining why Dr. Lisa Jones, a prominent Black chemist, withdrew her candidacy to join the UNC faculty.

The letter, signed by chemistry Department Chair Wei You and other faculty members, says Jones made her decision after the “disheartening” news of the tenure case.

“The news this week that Nikole Hannah-Jones was denied tenure was very disheartening,” Jones wrote. “It does not seem in line with a school that says it is interested in diversity. Although I know this decision may not reflect the view of the school’s faculty, I will say that I cannot see myself accepting a position at a university where this decision stands. I appreciate all of the effort you have put into trying to recruit me but for me, this is hard to overlook.”

Jones currently runs her own lab as an associate professor in the Department of Pharmaceutical Sciences at the University of Maryland School of Pharmacy and is renowned for her work in studying proteins.

Hannah-Jones, who is also a Black woman, is slated to join the faculty at UNC-CH in July as the Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism. The board failed to award her tenure earlier this year, which caused national outrage among professional journalists, UNC faculty, alumni and students who say it was because of race and politics.

“I’ve never met this sister, Dr. Lisa Jones, but the solidarity shown me by Black women in particular during this crucible is something I will never forget,” Hannah-Jones tweeted.

For two years, the chemistry department recruited Jones, a bioanalytical chemist who would have bolstered the department’s mission in research and education, according to the letter.

This tenure case is “already having a chilling effect on future hiring at UNC, particularly from underrepresented groups,” the letter says.

You said the letter was sent to express concern and urge the chancellor and trustees to fix the situation. He explained they have been trying very hard to recruit Jones to diversify their faculty and bring a top talent to the department. They failed because of this tenure case.

“It was demoralizing,” You said.

It also puts the university’s reputation on the line and could take a few years to overcome, he said.

“It could happen in the future, too,” You said. “That’s exactly what we’re trying to tell the people above us.”

Mimi Chapman, who chairs the UNC-CH faculty, said losing candidates like Jones was “entirely predictable and entirely upsetting.”

“I don’t blame her at all for making this decision. I think it’s a principled stance,” Chapman said. “And I think it’s a reasonable question to ask whether we as an institution are living up to our values in this moment.”

Chapman added that the trustees have the power to remedy it — and need to do it immediately.

“They can take a vote and show us who they are and where they stand,” Chapman said.


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