Questions about diversity, inclusiveness threaten accreditation of UNC journalism school

Interim Dean Heidi Hennink-Kaminski informed faculty and staff of the Hussman School of Journalism and Media's provisional accreditation status in an email.

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Cullen Browder
, WRAL anchor/reporter
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — The agency responsible for evaluation of university journalism and mass communication programs voted last week to downgrade, at least temporarily, the accreditation of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Hussman School of Journalism and Media, according to an email from Interim Dean Heidi Hennink-Kaminski.

In her email, Hennink-Kaminski told faculty and staff that the Accrediting Council on Education in Journalism and Mass Communications voted on Friday to grant “provisional accreditation” to the school.

“I hope you will treat this information as preliminary and wait, along with me, for more clarity before drawing conclusions or making public statements,” Hennink-Kaminski wrote in an email to faculty and staff. “Typically, the ACEJMC process is to send a provisionally accredited institution a letter 2-3 weeks after the council meeting with details of the deficiencies and the process for reconsideration.”

Hennink-Kaminski said the ACEJMC’s vote was “unexpected.”

At its August 2021 meeting, the ACEJMC Council unanimously approved a Resolution on Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Social Justice.

After a review of UNC in October 2021, an ACEJMC accrediting team found the Hussman School of Journalism and Media out of compliance with that standard. Despite this, Hennink-Kaminski said the team still recommended reaccreditation for the school.

“The site team’s recommendation was affirmed by a unanimous 12-0-0 vote by the ACEJMC Accrediting Committee in March of this year before being sent to the ACEJMC Accrediting Council for review,” Hennink-Kaminski wrote.

On April 29, the ACEJMC Council voted 7-5 not to give UNC full accreditation. The council then voted 10-2 to grant the school provisional status.

The October 2021 review by the ACEJMC accreditation team lasted three days. Representatives met with students, faculty and staff of the journalism school. The review that found the Hussman School has a written diversity plan, in which it defines diversity and overarching goals.

"However, the UNC Hussman School is dealing with an existential crisis both internally and externally," the accrediting team found. "The controversy surrounding the decision by Nikole Hannah-Jones to turn down a tenured, endowed chair at the school exposed long-standing problems. Many stem from inconsistencies in executing the goals in the 2016 Diversity and Inclusion Action Plan."

Hannah-Jones, a UNC-Chapel Hill alumna and a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for The New York Times, was hired in April 2021 as the Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism at the Hussman School. But instead of granting her the tenure offered to previous Knight Chairs, the UNC Board of Trustees offered her a five-year contract. Her supporters said the decision was because of her work on the 1619 Project, which focused on slavery's lasting impact on American history.

In July 2021, UNC trustees voted to give Hannah-Jones a tenured faculty position, but she declined the position. Instead, she took a tenured Knight Chair in Race and Journalism at Howard University in Washington, D.C.

The ACEJMC accreditation team said that UNC faculty and students acknowledged the damage caused by the Hannah-Jones decision.

"Some faculty members and school leaders said it brought them together," the accreditation team found. "Others said it brought to light [diversity, equity and inclusion] issues that had been dormant for years. Faculty and students of color said they were not surprised by her decision not to come to UNC Hussman."

UNC Hussman School's first goal in the 2016 diversity plan was to "clearly define and publicize the school's commitment to diversity," according to the ACEJMC accreditation team.

"The school did an effective job of visibly identifying courses, highlighting diversity in syllabi, activities and research, but comments from students and faculty indicate that much of it has been superficial," the accreditation team found. "Several students referred to many of the diversity initiatives as going through the motions."

Another goal of the 2016 diversity plan was to address the recruitment and retention of faculty, staff, students and administrators. The school did have an increase from four to six Black faculty members.

"Several faculty members and staff, in particular those of color, said morale is low and they are considering leaving the school," the accreditation team found.

The accreditation team also mentioned similarities from the October 2021 visit to the previous site report from several years ago.

"The previous site team report stated that students and faculty 'bemoaned the lack of diversity,'" the accreditation team found. "Similar comments were made during this site visit.

"One junior student heading into his senior year said he had never been taught by a faculty member of color. Several faculty members complained that recruiting faculty of color has been haphazard and ineffective."

One student told the ACEJMC accreditation team that the school's introductory skills classes utilized examples that were "culturally insensitive, bordering on racist."

Next steps for UNC

Hennink-Kaminski said there are plans to hold a virtual discussion for faculty and staff on Wednesday morning. It’s unclear whether the discussion is open to the public.

“I am seeking the information and clarity needed to brief you all comprehensively about what this means to our community,” Hennink-Kaminski wrote. “I reach out to you now in the interest of transparency. I look forward to reporting more complete information and specific actions we can take together.”

UNC will have provisional status for two years. The university will then have the opportunity to receive full accreditation again by the ACEJMC.

ACEJMC listed 117 institutions across the country as accredited with 113 as fully accredited and four having provisional status. The agency also cited the University of Idaho's journalism school with diversity and inclusion issues. The other two schools, Jacksonville State University in Alabama and Hampton University in Virginia, have provisional accreditation because of academic concerns.


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