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Chemist Lisa Jones withdraws from UNC faculty search over Pulitzer-winning journalist's tenure denial

UNC chemistry faculty respond with letter to administration warning tenure decision will do widespread harm

by Melba Newsome, special to C&EN
June 7, 2021

Photo shows buildings on the quad at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, partly obscured by trees.
Credit: Shutterstock
The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill quad

Last week, bioanalytical chemist Lisa Jones withdrew from consideration for a faculty job at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill because of the university board of trustees’ decision to deny tenure to Nikole Hannah-Jones, a Pulitzer Prize–winning Black journalist. The chemistry department sent a letter to administrators supporting Jones and warning of the negative effects this tenure decision could have on the university, including on the ability to recruit faculty.

The chemistry department had spent two years trying to recruit Jones, well known for her work in structural proteo­mics and currently an associate professor in the Department of Pharmaceutical Sciences at the University of Maryland School of Pharmacy. However, in her letter to the department, Jones said she could not see herself accepting a position at a university where the Board of Trustees’ decision to intervene and refusal to hire Hannah-Jones with tenure stands. Hannah-Jones, a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant winner best known for the 1619 Project, a New York Times Magazine initiative that underlines the role of slavery and Black Americans in US history, is set to join the UNC faculty in July as the Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism at the Hussman School of Journalism and Media.

Jones, who is Black, declined to be interviewed for this article but emailed the following statement: “Hearing of the delay of Nikole Hannah-Jones’ tenure decision led me to reconsider whether the environment at the University of North Carolina (UNC) would be conducive to the achievement of my academic aspirations, which include promoting diversity, equity, and inclusion. While I have never met Ms. Hannah-Jones, as a faculty member of color, I stand in solidarity with her and could not in good conscience accept a position at UNC. This situation is indicative of a broader issue within academia where faculty of color face several obstacles and are less likely to gain tenure.”

Chemistry department chair Wei You sent a letter to Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz and other administrators that said Hannah-Jones’s tenure case is “already having a chilling effect on future hiring at UNC, particularly from under-represented groups.” You urged the chancellor and trustees to fix the situation.

During its 203-year history, UNC’s chemistry department has only recruited three Black faculty to tenure-track positions; Jones would have been a fourth.

Hannah-Jones weighed in by tweet: “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”

UNC chemistry faculty members who communicated with C&EN expressed disappointment that Jones would not be joining UNC but were unequivocal in their support for her decision. “Recruiting faculty of color, specifically Black scholars, is already extraordinarily difficult because data shows that a vanishingly small number of us obtain PhDs in STEM fields,” said assistant professor Sidney M. Wilkerson-Hill. “At the end of the day, every candidate must weigh numerous factors when deciding whether a position is the right fit for them. I think many potential faculty candidates across the nation are factoring the Nikole Hannah-Jones decision into their calculus from a variety of angles, the most obvious being—do the actions of the department and institution align with my values?”

Thomas C. Freeman, a teaching assistant professor in chemistry and executive director of the Chancellor’s Science Scholars Program, a UNC scholarship program that offers mentorship and peer support and emphasizes diversity and inclusion, said the handling of Hannah-Jones “exposed a troubling disconnect between our declared vision and our ability to achieve this vision of greater diversity, equity, and inclusion. If this institution wants to address the low numbers of Black scientists, then they need to take actions consistent with that goal and the governing bodies should support those actions.”

Freeman credits Jones for working to make STEM more inclusive and equitable and believes her decision will ultimately empower other Black scientists to stand up for what they believe.


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