An Influential Donor to UNC School of Journalism Was Behind the Denial of Tenured Position to 1619 Author Nikole Hannah-Jones

Photo by Evan Agostini/Invision/AP, File

As we reported here two weeks ago, Nikole Hannah-Jones, the founder of the CRT-based “1619 Project” at the New York Times, was offered a faculty position at the University of North Carolina School of Journalism, but she was not offered tenure even though the faculty selection committee had recommended that a tenured position be offered to her.

It was widely reported at the time that the Board of Trustees for the school had decided to not offer a tenured position due to the fact that Hannah-Jones had come from a position as a reporter and not as an academic, and because she had no classroom teaching experience.  Those justifications were viewed as pretextual, as all prior nominees to the prestigious Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism had received offers of tenure at the time of their appointment.

But it appears that the details are a bit more complicated, as a very significant donor to the Journalism School made his views known behind the scenes before the question of a tenured position was even discussed by the Board.

The UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media is named in honor of Walter Hussman Jr., who in 2019 made a $25 million donation to support the school.  Hussman is the publisher of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, along with 10 other newspapers, and is CEO of WEHCO Media, Inc., a family publishing empire that goes back 110 years.  He is also a 1968 graduate of UNC-Chapel Hill.

Most significantly, for the purposes of this story, Hussman is an old-fashioned believer in straight objectivity when it comes to journalism and reporting the news.

In a story published yesterday in the North Carolina magazine “The Assembly,” email communications between Hussman and various individuals at UNC were published showing efforts by Hussman to discourage the hiring of Hannah-Jones to a tenured faculty position.  The author of the piece published contents from the emails, and then directed questions to Hussman who was reluctant to speak publicly on the matter.  The public revelation of the communications was clearly done by those inside the School with access to them who disagree with the decision to not offer a tenured position to Hannah-Jones and was meant to pressure Hussman and the School to reverse their decision.  Hannah-Jones and her attorneys have given the school until June 4 to reverse the decision, and a new proposal for offering her a tenured position has been sent to the Board of Trustees for consideration.

Here are some interesting passages from the article in The Assembly:

Hussman … is an evangelist of old-school objectivity. “Impartiality means reporting, editing, and delivering the news honestly, fairly, objectively, and without personal opinion or bias,” says the opening line of his statement of core values.

These “core values” are a fascinating topic. Hussman has reduced a set of principles of journalist integrity down to this “Statement of Core Values,” and it runs every day in each of his 10 newspapers on the second page.  One condition on his $25 million donation to the UNC School of Journalism was that the Statement of Core Values be chiseled into a wall at the entrance to Carroll Hall where the School is housed.  Not painted or otherwise attached to the wall — but chiseled into the wall itself.

Hannah-Jones has been widely supported at UNC and across academia since the news went public. But long before the debate entered the public arena, opposition to her appointment had been quietly growing, led in part by Hussman himself.

Hussman had doubts about whether having her on the faculty would distract from teaching the school’s core values…

“I worry about the controversy of tying the UNC journalism school to the 1619 project,” Hussman wrote in a late December email to King, copying in Guskiewicz and Routh. “I find myself more in agreement with Pulitzer prize winning historians like James McPherson and Gordon Wood than I do Nikole Hannah-Jones.

“These historians appear to me to be pushing to find the true historical facts. Based on her own words, many will conclude she is trying to push an agenda, and they will assume she is manipulating historical facts to support it. If asked about it, I will have to be honest in saying I agree with the historians.”

“My hope and vision was that the journalism school would be the champion of objective, impartial reporting and separating news and opinion, and that would add so much to its reputation and would benefit both the school and the University,” he wrote. “Instead, I fear this possible and needless controversy will overshadow it.”

The story notes that in some of his communications Hussman took issue with one particular part of the 1619 Project’s view of the post-World War II struggle for civil rights in the South, claiming that black Americans were on their own fighting that battle.

Hussman wrote: “I think this claim denigrates the courageous efforts of many white Americans to address the sin of slavery and the racial injustices that resulted after the Civil War.” He listed white Freedom Riders and other whites who had fought for equality, including journalists across the South….

“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.”

In responding to the author’s inquiries, Hussman admitted that he had never met Hannah-Jones but that he hoped to do so.  He told the author that he had a question he would like to ask her if they did meet:

“A good question for her is, ‘How do you feel about these core values?’” he told The Assembly. “I really don’t know the answer to that.”

That is the issue for Hussman — his view that Hannah-Jones represents the antithesis to “objective” journalism that he champions.  Her celebrity standing is derived from a form of advocacy journalism that masquerades as objective by dismissing the journalism and historians that have come before it.

Hussman has not yet delivered the entirety of his $25 million gift to the school. The relationship will likely be tested in the days ahead as it seems clear that Hannah-Jones is going to receive an offer for a tenured position.

The possibility of Nikole Hannah-Jones ’03 (MA) receiving a tenured faculty position in UNC’s Hussman School of Journalism and Media is back on the table.

Members of the Board of Trustees, including the chair of the University Affairs Committee to which tenure applications go first, say the request to grant tenure to Hannah-Jones has been resubmitted by the faculty committee that considers tenure.

The resubmission comes amid a recent steady stream of criticism of the trustees’ refusal to grant Hannah-Jones tenure in a process that began last summer.

The story on Hussman and the release of his email communications with UNC officials are meant to embarrass both him and the University in order to push aside his objections to Hannah-Jones and the style of journalism she represents.

Whether UNC still gets the full $25 million remains to be seen.

On Wednesday, the chancellor’s Commission on History, Race and a Way Forward — set up to guide UNC’s reckoning with its racial history — joined “others in the Carolina community who have called you to account for refusing to review the faculty recommendation that Nikole Hannah-Jones be appointed Knight professor of journalism, with tenure.”

“Intentionally or not,” the commission co-chairs wrote to the trustees, “you have enlisted the university in the project of historical denialism that refuses to confront the centrality of race and racism in our national past and in the life of our nation, state, and university today. In the absence of any measure of transparency, you leave us with deeply disturbing facts.

“You denied a Black woman tenure after a rigorous review by Carolina faculty and external academic evaluators. Prior appointees to the Knight chair at UNC were white and were awarded tenure. Your claim that Hannah-Jones should be treated differently because she comes from outside the academy does not bear scrutiny.”

There it is.

All of Hussman’s concerns about the direction of modern journalism, and Hannah-Jones’ prominent role advocating against standards of objectivity, are reduced to a claim that he’s just a racist in sheep’s clothing.

Why should he give such people money to work against what is so important to him?