Education

After Nikole Hannah-Jones controversy, donor making quiet visit to UNC-Chapel Hill

Posted October 14, 2021 5:45 p.m. EDT

— Walter Hussman, the Arkansas newspaper publisher whose $25 million donation put his name on the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill's journalism school, was to meet with school administrators on campus Friday, but not with faculty critical of his role in a recent controversy.

Hussman privately expressed concerns to Hussman School of Journalism and Media administrators about hiring Nikole Hannah-Jones, a UNC-Chapel Hill alumna and a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for The New York Times.

Hannah-Jones was hired as the Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism, but was offered only a five-year contract instead of being granted tenure, as previous Knight Chairs had been. Her supporters said the decision was because of her work on the 1619 Project, which focused on slavery's lasting impact on American history.

Hussman said in emails that the 1619 Project wasn't objective reporting and that he didn't want the school dragged into the national controversy over it.

But he told WRAL News in a May interview that he never told UNC-Chapel Hill not to hire Hannah-Jones and said his donation to the journalism school wasn't in jeopardy.

"I didn't pressure anybody," he said at the time. "I care a great deal about the school, and these are my opinions, and I felt like it's up to the university to make decisions ... It's not my decision, but I think I'd be kind of derelict in my duties if I thought they were making a mistake without at least telling them what I thought about it."

Only after weeks of public outcry over the situation did the Board of Trustees vote to give her tenure in late June.

But Hannah-Jones then turned down the job to accept a similar Knight Chair position at Howard University, an HBCU in Washington, D.C. She said Hussman's meddling was among the reasons she wouldn't feel comfortable working at UNC-Chapel Hill.

Hussman reiterated in a July letter to Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz that his concerns were "rooted entirely in the core values of honesty, accuracy and impartiality, which are closely associated both with me and the school. He added that he "respect[s] academic freedom and the appropriate boundaries for major donors."

But Hussman School faculty aren't ready to let the school's namesake off the hook.

"Hussman has behaved as a victor who vanquished, with UNC Board of Trustees support, our school's judicious bid to hire Nikole Hannah-Jones," Associate Professor Deb Aikat said in an email to WRAL News.

The visit to the Chapel Hill campus is "shrouded in secrecy and lack of transparency, accountability and honesty," Aikat said. "Needless to say, our faculty are concerned."

Hussman was to take part in a panel discussion with faculty on issues such as tenure and hiring, ethics and the school's reputation, but school administrators decided against that. Instead, they are limiting his interaction to a small group.

"For various reasons, I do not feel we are able to assemble a representative panel that could effectively communicate the diverse and passionate views of our faculty for a meeting this Friday," Associate Professor Steven King wrote in an Oct. 11 email to faculty.

The smaller meeting, King said, is to "facilitate fruitful discussion that hopefully builds a relationship between the faculty our named donor" and produce "a roadmap for working through our differences."

"Donors are vital to our success, and so are autonomy and academic freedom," he wrote. "I believe we can maintain these essential values while also encouraging current and future donors to generously support our worthwhile endeavors."

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