Nikole Hannah-Jones is pictured at her Brooklyn home on July 6, 2021. Hannah-Jones says she will not be teaching at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill following a long tenure battle .

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John Minchillo / AP

Nikole Hannah-Jones is pictured at her Brooklyn home on July 6, 2021. Hannah-Jones says she will not be teaching at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill following a long tenure battle .

John Minchillo / AP

When Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones announced last week that she was heading to Howard University, her decision sparked a conversation about whether black academics would reverse the tale on the use of their talents in predominantly white institutions.

Hannah-Jones, who created Project 1619 for the New York Times, was first offered a position at her alma mater, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

But amid a backlash from the Conservatives to Project 1619 and its focus on the legacy of slavery in America today, a public and messy drama quickly unfolded. The UNC turned down Hannah-Jones’ tenure following opposition to the project – including at least one donor – only to vote for her later.

In the aftermath of the tenure decision, Hannah-Jones announced that she would not accept the post at UNC. Instead, she chose Howard University, where she will join recently-hired Ta-Nehisi Coates, acclaimed author of Between the world and me.

His decision sent shockwaves

Hannah-Jones will hold a permanent position at the prestigious historically black university in Washington, DC, and work to create a new center for journalism and democracy. His position and that of Coates are supported by $ 20 million in donations from the Ford, MacArthur and Knight foundations, as well as an anonymous donor.

“I really wanted to use my talents and the resources I could bring and bring them into an institution that was actually built for black upliftment and black excellence, which was not built in opposition to the work I want to do. and me as a human being “, Hannah-Jones tell NPR Here and now.

His decision sent shockwaves through academia. At historically black colleges and universities like Howard, it was celebrated as an important step towards redefining what schools should be considered among the most prestigious in the country.

Joining the faculty of a predominantly white institution like an Ivy League school might have been seen as “usual thinking,” Coates told NPR. Morning edition. Choosing Howard sets a different standard that no longer favors white space by default, he said.

“I think the usual thought would have been to go somewhere, you know, that had a higher pedigree, you know? I’m going to go to Yale. I’m going to go to Princeton or whatever,” Coates said. “I think what Nikole is saying is that we have wealth and untapped wealth in our own communities.”

HBCU faces significant funding challenges

Yet despite all the excitement over Hannah-Jones’ decision, small HBCUs across the country continue to face immense funding challenges, which can make it difficult to replicate Howard’s ability. to attract the best talent.

Historically, HBCUs have had smaller endowments than predominantly white institutions, and their donations are also much smaller. And despite the Biden administration’s emphasis on supporting HBCUs, including $ 3 billion Set aside in the US bailout, the economic impacts of the pandemic on schools have been significant.

Walter Kimbrough, president of Dillard University, a private HBCU in New Orleans, says part of the problem is with donors and large foundations – like those who funded Hannah-Jones and Coates’ positions at Howard – without taking into account the range of HBCUs in the country, and instead of focusing only on the privileged few.

“Sometimes I think we think of them as a monolith and they aren’t,” he said, adding that companies can’t just donate to more established institutions like Howard, Spelman and Morehouse.

“Howard cannot be the proxy for all HBCUs,” he said.

Hannah-Jones may have created a new plan

Despite funding issues, Kimbrough is hopeful that Hannah-Jones’ move to Howard will provide a “blueprint” for other black academics to take the same steps in HBCUs across the country and uplift black institutions and students.

“It catches the attention of other public intellectuals like Nikole Hannah-Jones. She gave them the outline to say, ‘Don’t write another essay about the difficulty of being a black scholar in white space. Use your influence, go to foundations, you get your money back and you take it to an HBCU. ‘”

And when it comes to donations and funds from large corporations and individuals, he underscores the need to expand the schools under consideration.

“The next phase is how to get to a next layer of institutions that are really doing a lot of really good work that people might not know and start supporting them,” he said.

This is a sentiment shared by Coates.

“Howard uses a lot of oxygen. But I really hope people remember that we are not the only HBCU. Not only are we not, we cannot be the only HBCU. neither possible nor desirable, ”Coates told NPR.

“I hope we keep the HBCU institution as a whole in mind and not just focus on one thing.”

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