UNC journalism school namesake, donor expressed reservations about Hannah-Jones hire

Posted May 31, 2021 12:37 p.m. EDT
Updated May 31, 2021 6:11 p.m. EDT

— The man whose name adorns the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill journalism school expressed reservations about the hiring of a New York Times journalist in e-mails to the school's dean, chancellor and at least one member of the university board of trustees.

The e-mails, first reported by journalist John Drescher in The Assembly and confirmed to WRAL News by Walter Hussman Jr., namesake of the Hussman School of Journalism and Media, anticipated a "possible and needless controversy" should UNC hire Nikole Hannah-Jones.

Hussman told WRAL News Monday that he relayed concerns to journalism school dean Susan King as long as a year ago. "I did express my opinions," he said, "but I did that, I thought, in a private way."

WRAL News has requested access to relevant emails between Hussman, King, Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz and Vice Chancellor David Routh.

"Susan said, 'I think this will be good for the journalism school,' and I said, 'Well I've really got concerns.' We just respectfully agreed to disagree on the issue," he said. "And she may be right and I may be wrong."

Hannah-Jones is a Pulitzer Prize winner best known for her work on The 1619 Project, which re-examines American history from the date on which the first enslaved Africans arrived in the colonies.

Hussman wouldn't elaborate on his concerns about Hannah-Jones to WRAL News. He referred to what he considers the core principles of journalism, saying, "There's a huge credibility problem, and I'm afraid it's because people – the journalism – has moved away from objectivity, impartiality, fairness, giving both sides.

Hannah-Jones tweeted this quote from The Assembly article:

“Long before Nikole Hannah Jones won her Pulitzer Prize,” Hussman wrote, “courageous white southerners risking their lives standing up for the rights of blacks were winning Pulitzer prizes, too.”

Hannah-Jones was hired in April as the Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism at UNC-CH.

The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation has funded numerous Knight Chair faculty positions nationwide, and they typically carry tenure. But Hannah-Jones was offered a five-year contract instead at a salary of $180,000 a year.

The lack of tenure for the position has put a national spotlight on UNC-Chapel Hill.

Supporters of Hannah-Jones say she hasn't been given tenure because of the controversial nature of her work. Conservative groups have said The 1619 Project paints the U.S. in a bad light. Lawmakers in North Carolina and other states are pursuing legislation to curb the instruction of "critical race theory," an academic concept that acknowledges the existence of white supremacy and systemic racism and holds that some institutions are inherently racist because they maintain the momentum of racial inequality.

Hussman, who is the publisher of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, said he never told King not to hire Hannah-Jones and that the $25 million he has pledged to the journalism school is not in jeopardy.

"I didn't pressure anybody," he said. "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."

Despite Hussman's assertions, UNC Journalism Professor Deb Aikat, who teaches media ethics, says the UNC faculty sense his influence.

"I worry when these things happen, and I think our faculty colleagues are deeply disturbed over such seeming interventions," he said.

In the on-going debate, Aikat sees a contrast between the how Hussman and Hannah-Jones see the profession and the role of the journalist.

"This is a good moment for us to realize that our field is changing, and there are people who have differing opinions on the future of journalism, how we should report, and how we should mirror society," he said.

Hussman told WRAL News that he doesn't know Hannah-Jones and would prefer not to judge her without a personal conversation.

"I don't have anything against her personally," he said. "I don't know her. I don't try to judge people until I've met them.

"I've read a lot of what she's written, and I know a lot of it is controversial, and I know that controversy is probably going to follow her.​"

Hannah-Jones has stayed publicly silent as the controversy has swirled.

Where once her Twitter bio included a link to UNC, that mention has disappeared. She hasn't responded to several requests from WRAL News for comment.

And last week, her lawyers asked university officials and state lawmakers to preserve all emails and other documents related to tenure decisions by the board.

"I have retained legal counsel to respond to the Board of Trustees’ failure to consider and approve my application for tenure, despite the recommendation of the faculty, dean, provost and chancellor," Hannah-Jones said in a statement.

Amid all of that public and private pressure, the university's Board of Trustees agreed to consider tenure for Hannah-Jones, but it is not clear when any decision would be made. Her contract at UNC is scheduled to begin July 1.

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