Maybe a historian could allay the donor’s concerns.
Last August 24, Walter E. Hussman Jr., an Arkansas newspaper publisher, had a midday phone call with James L. Leloudis, a history professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where Hussman had pledged to donate $25 million to the journalism school.
By this point, few people knew that the Hussman School of Journalism and Media was planning to hire Nikole Hannah-Jones, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist for The New York Times and a Chapel Hill alumna. The school’s full professors had learned of the plan only weeks before, when Susan King, their dean, convened the group for a sub rosa Zoom meeting and urged them not to publicly discuss the still-developing deal, according to people who attended.
But Hussman was more plugged in than most, and King had told him about the plan sometime in August, he recalled. Hussman set about educating himself on Hannah-Jones, reading at first the opening essay of her highest-profile work, “The 1619 Project.” The project, which situates slavery at the center of American history, has been both heralded as a long-overdue corrective of the rah-rah version of the nation’s founding and criticized by some historians for inaccuracies. Donald J. Trump, as president, went further, lumping “1619” in with critical race theory as a form of “ideological poison” that ought to be counterbalanced with “patriotic education.”
Before he knew it, Hussman had curated his own personal summer book club centered on Hannah-Jones’s work and the commentary around it. He read parts of “1619,” and moved on to “What Is Owed,” Hannah-Jones’s New York Times Magazine piece on reparations. He read a Politico column by Leslie M. Harris, a history professor at Northwestern University, titled “I Helped Fact-Check the 1619 Project. The Times Ignored Me.”
“I read the stuff on the World Socialist Web Site,” Hussman told The Chronicle, sounding a bit aghast at how far he had descended down the rabbit hole, “and they were criticizing. I mean, I tried to read everything.”
In her Politico column, Harris said she had worried that Hannah-Jones’s overstated claim that the preservation of slavery was a central cause of the Revolutionary War would give critics an opening to discredit the entirety of an otherwise important work, which, Harris said, is “exactly what has happened.”
For Hussman, who is 74 years old, the criticism that Hannah-Jones’s work is driven more by a political agenda than solid facts is particularly troublesome. He has staked his journalistic identity around a set of “core values,” which call for “impartiality” in reporting that is free of “personal opinion or bias.” The values are printed every day on the secondpage of each of the 11 daily newspapers he and his family own. They hang, too, on the wall of the journalism school that bears his name.
After reading Hannah-Jones’s work, Hussman seized upon her assertion that, in the struggle for equal rights, “For the most part, Black Americans fought back alone.” That didn’t sound right to the longtime newsman, who thought it left out the contributions of white journalists who had endured death threats for their coverage of the civil-rights movement. And what about white abolitionists? he asked Leloudis, the history professor.
“He said, ‘You know, we had an abolitionist society of course in New England, but there was even an abolitionist society in Virginia,’” Hussman recalls. “I said, ‘Abolitionist society in Virginia? That’s news to me.’”
Leloudis recalls his conversation with Hussman as cordial. In Leloudis’s view, “1619” is “absolutely invaluable.” It frames for a broad audience a conversation about the nation’s history that historians have been having for decades.
Ultimately, Hussman was unmoved. “I did not convince him,” Leloudis said, “that he should give up his concerns about the content of ‘The 1619 Project’ and the basic argument it’s making about race and American history.”
Leloudis pointed to a larger issue at play in the opposition to the project. It’s often criticized for being overly divisive, he said in an email to The Chronicle. That’s the same sort of argument that opponents of civil rights made about protesters sitting at lunch counters and marching in the streets.
“An appeal to civility,” Leloudis wrote, “was wielded as a powerful political weapon in service to the racial status quo. And, I fear, we find ourselves in a very similar situation today.”
In conversations with the dean, Hussman continued top press his point.
“It just really concerns me, you know?” Hussman said he told the dean on a phone call. “And she said, ‘Well, I understand you might be concerned, but she won a Pulitzer Prize; she’s a MacArthur genius. She’s so well known, and this will just be a real feather in the cap for the journalism school.’
“I said, ‘Susan, I’ve got a lot of respect for you,’ and she said, ‘I’ve got a lot of respect for you, too.’ And I said, ‘I think this is just one of those things where we need to agree to disagree.’ And so, we kind of just left it at that.”
But Hussman didn’t leave it at that. As he often does, he reduced his concerns to writing. His initial draft was overly long, he said, so he decided to fashion separate emails on each individual problem he had with “The 1619 Project.” Was the Revolutionary War about protecting the institution of slavery? (Hussman thinks not, and he “dealt with that one” in two separate emails). He moved from there to the assertion about Black people’s having fought largely alone. Another email, he said, concerned reparations.
Hussman sent the emails to David S. Routh, vice chancellor for university development; along with Kevin M. Guskiewicz, Chapel Hill’s chancellor; and King, the dean. At least two of the emails were obtained by The Assembly, a digital magazine in North Carolina, which quoted from them in an article late last month.
In one pointed missive, Hussman wrote, “Long before Nikole Hannah Jones won her Pulitzer Prize, courageous white southerners risking their lives standing up for the rights of blacks were winning Pulitzer prizes, too.”
Hussman declined to provide the emails to The Chronicle, although, he said, “I’ve even thought about publishing them myself in full page ads in the Raleigh News & Observer, because there’s nothing in those emails that I’m concerned about, I’m embarrassed about, I’m ashamed of. I meant every single word.”
(The Chronicle has requested the emails and a host of other documents through public-records requests with the university.)
Hussman’s communications with top Chapel Hill officials have emerged as key exhibits in the still-unfolding case of Hannah-Jones’s hiring as the Knight chair in race and investigative journalism. They provide a glimpse into the drama that unfolded in the months before the journalism school, in April, announced Hannah-Jones’s appointment. They also hint at the backroom skepticism that existed before the Board of Trustees’ decision, in January, not to act on Hannah-Jones’s application for tenure — a coveted academic status that had been granted to the journalism school’s two previous Knight chairs. (A third had tenure at Chapel Hill before he became a Knight chair.)
News of the snub, which broke last month, invited criticism of Chapel Hill’s board, whose members are appointed by the Republican-controlled legislature and a system-level board with deep ties to that party. It appeared the trustees had overridden the will of the faculty and the recommendation of the provost by stalling a tenure vote on a prominent Black journalist whose work has become a favorite punching bag for the right.
The recommendation that Hannah-Jones be tenured has since been resubmitted to the board, although there is no guarantee of a vote. Meantime, she has threatened a federal lawsuit, arguing, through her lawyers, that the university unlawfully discriminated against her “based on the content of her journalism and scholarship and because of her race.”
The case has once again thrust Chapel Hill, which for years fought over the fate of a Confederate monument on campus known as Silent Sam, into a contentious debate. It has crystallized and inflamed a larger national reckoning — one that is rooted in the red-letter year, 1619, when a group of some 20 people believed to be the first enslaved Africans arrived in the English colony of Virginia. It is unfolding still, in 2021, with a Black woman named Nikole Hannah-Jones, who is waiting for the mostly white trustees of one of the nation’s oldest public universities to grant her an honor that her new colleagues say she more than deserves.
It all started on a Zoom call.
Rhonda Gibson, a journalism professor, was at first puzzled to be invited to the meeting. She would not be promoted officially to the rank of full professor until a few weeks later, on July 1. But the dean seemed to be envisioning a future in which Gibson and a couple of her soon-to-be-promoted colleagues would vote on Hannah-Jones’s hire with tenure. Whether the invite was extended to rising full professors as a courtesy or a strategy is difficult to say. (King, who would know, has declined numerous interview requests.)
It had been a long road to get to this moment. In 2019 the journalism school had tried unsuccessfully to fill the Knight chair in digital advertising and marketing vacated by JoAnn Sciarrino, who had left Chapel Hill the year before for the University of Texas at Austin. That search had followed a traditional process in which professors collectively wordsmithed a job description and interviewed multiple applicants. But the leading candidate declined the offer, and, as time dragged on, “It became clear we were not going to reopen an advertising search,” Gibson said.
The faculty were familiar with Hannah-Jones, not only from her prominence as a journalist but from her interactions with Chapel Hill and its students. She was a celebrity newswoman, who, in 2003, had earned a master’s degree from the journalism school. She had been invited back, in 2017, to speak to the Hussman school’s graduates.
Some of Hannah-Jones’s most celebrated work, including her Pulitzer-winning commentary for the “1619 Project,” interweaves the personal with the historical and the political. Five years ago, she used the experience of picking a school for her daughter as the catalyst for an examination of school segregation that appeared in The New York Times Magazine.
Hannah-Jones has argued that, for much of the history of journalism in the United States, the lived experiences and perspectives of Black journalists have largely been left out of what readers have found in newspapers. “Objectivity,” if not a farce, is improperly understood, Hannah-Jones told NPR’s 1A last June, a few days before Chapel Hill’s dean met with the full professors.
“When white Americans say to me, ‘I just want factual reporting,’” Hannah Jones said on the program, “what they’re saying to me is they want reporting from a white perspective … with a white normative view, and that simply has never been objective.”
Hannah-Jones probably didn’t know it at the time of the interview, but she was defining a journalistic philosophy that was in sharp contrast with that of Hussman, the man who has given Chapel Hill’s journalism school the largest gift in its history — the man who would make it his hobby, if not his mission, to sow doubt about her hiring as a professor.
Hannah-Jones has not responded to interview requests from The Chronicle.
Faculty members often bristle at closed searches, which is what King proposed at that meeting: Hannah-Jones was a target of opportunity, the best candidate — the only candidate. In Gibson’s view, the Knight chair should be “a voice of now.” She agreed that the school had found that voice.
“I could not imagine a better time to make this hire,” Gibson said. “I really am sad that it’s gotten bogged down in controversy. It is unorthodox as a faculty hire, but it is exactly what a professional journalism school needs to do, in my opinion.”
North Carolina’s fiscal hawks were bound to see red at the hiring of a professor who would, according to available state records, earn more money than every employee in her school except the dean. But the two most recent Knight chairs, who had none of Hannah-Jones’s political baggage, were granted tenure and generous pay without any discernible challenge from the board. Those professors — Sciarrino and Penelope M. Abernathy — in their final years of employment earned salaries of $171,141.43 and $175,489.68, respectively, university officials said.
W. Marty Kotis III, a member of the system’s Board of Governors — and a critic of tenure in all cases — said he had been concerned about the financial management of the journalism school even before Hannah-Jones’s hire.
“Gosh, they can afford to bring someone in and do this?” he said. “And yet, they’re cutting adjuncts and increasing class sizes. It just doesn’t feel right.”
Since Republicans gained control of the General Assembly, in 2010,the system’s Board of Governors has seldom shrunk from a politically charged fight. Fiscal conservatism is a running theme, but race has often been at the core of the board’s most heated debates. In 2017 the board approved a policy that stripped the Center for Civil Rights, a legal-advocacy institute that had mostly represented poor and minority clients, of its powers to litigate. In 2019 the board reached a deal that would give the Sons of Confederate Veterans, a nonprofit group that has fought the removal of Confederate statues across the South, $2.5 million to take Silent Sam off the university’s hands. (A state judge, in 2020, threw out the controversial settlement.)
In case after case, including the stalled vote on Hannah-Jones’s tenure, the university’s boards have provided anodyne public explanations for their positions that are unrelated to race or politics. This is a typical feature of a “disinformation campaign,” said Alice E. Marwick, an associate professor of communication at Chapel Hill.
“No one is going to say in public they don’t believe in racial equality and they think police brutality is OK,” Marwick said. “Those aren’t acceptable things to say. What you see in these campaigns is that these critiques are reframed in ways that are more socially acceptable.”
Marwick and Daniel Kreiss, an associate professor in the journalism school, recently co-wrote a column for Slate in which they argued that the Hannah-Jones tenure snub was tied to an ongoing conservative ruse. The goal, the professors wrote, is to misrepresent “The 1619 Project” as an effort “to hurt and punish white people, and white children in particular.” (Marwick and Kreiss are white).
“In this case, disinformation is being used to deny a decorated Black journalist tenure and ban the teaching of America’s racial history in our schools,” the professors wrote.
“Frustration is building. Anger is building. It’s demoralizing for folks to see,” said Jones, an assistant dean of students. “This is just yet another example. It’s an example of the devaluing of Black scholarship, an example of undermining our ability to lead and succeed, and an example of how many of us are treated differently.”
Private conversations with donors. Backroom deals. These are the features of the Hannah-Jones case that reinforce a perception held by many Black people who work and study at Chapel Hill, Jones said: “Black people are not at the table. We are often not in the room where decisions are made. The compromises, and the taking away of opportunities, happens in those rooms that we are not in.”
The tenure process is considered a personnel matter, and, for good reason, is mostly private. A candidate’s dossier moves from one committee to the next, and little is known about how those in the room evaluated them or what questions and critiques they may have raised. At least one prominent journalist, however, has confirmed to The Chronicle that she served as an independent evaluator of Hannah-Jones’s work. Dana Priest, an investigative reporter for The Washington Post who holds the Knight chair in public-affairs journalism at the University of Maryland at College Park, wrote a glowing letter in support of Hannah-Jones’s tenure candidacy.
Hannah-Jones has, over the course of her career, developed a deep understanding of “the history of racial injustice toward Black Americans and its manifestations today,” wrote Priest, who is white. “Most of these findings might be well known to Blacks, but they are not to the white majority. Depoliticizing this history through her scholarship and making it the widely-accepted understanding of American history will be something a tenured position at the university will allow her to do, and will bring great distinction on the institution.”
Priest has made a career out of digging into subjects that powerful people don’t want to talk about. She won a Pulitzer Prize in 2008 for reporting on the mistreatment of wounded veterans at the former Walter Reed Army Medical Center, and another Pulitzer two years earlier for exposing the government’s secret “black site” prisons. Given her work, she said, having tenure at Maryland was essential.
“I would never have taken it without tenure,” she said. “That was critical to me.”
“Tenure exists in large part to guarantee that unconventional, unorthodox views aren’t penalized,” Priest continued. “I was pretty sure that I was going to face that issue, just because part of what I like to do is push boundaries. The last thing I would want to do is think that I couldn’t do that or think that I might risk my job to do that.”
When Priest learned that Hannah-Jones had not been granted tenure, she was stunned. She summed up her reaction in a one-sentence email to King, the dean, on May 19 at 10:32 p.m. “What the hell happened?”
King did not respond.
Even now, it’s difficult to say what the hell happened.
Charles G. Duckett, chairman of the trustees’ university-affairs committee, which handles tenure cases before they reach the full board, has said that he delayed the vote because he had unanswered questions about Hannah-Jones’s classroom experience, among other things. (The Knight chair positions, which are endowed in part by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, are designed to bring high-profile professionals, who typically do not have traditional academic backgrounds, into university classrooms.)
Last month, as the controversy grew, Chapel Hill’s chancellor and Richard Y. Stevens, the campus board’s chairman, answered a few reporters’ questions. Stevens stressed that the board had taken no action on the Hannah-Jones case, drawing a distinction between the board not acting on a case and denying tenure outright. It was the dean’s decision, Stevens said, to offer Hannah-Jones a fixed-term appointment of five years as a professor of the practice with an option of being reviewed for tenure within that period.
Stevens, a former Republican state senator, said something else that is difficult to square with the truth as it is known: “Neither the provost, nor the chancellor, ever presented any recommendation on this appointment to the board.” By process, however, the board’s university affairs committee would never have received Hannah-Jones’s name without the provost’s recommendation. Asked about this seeming contradiction, Joanne Peters Denny, a Chapel Hill spokeswoman, responded via email:
“The university process is for the provost to review the recommendations of the APT,” she wrote, referencing the campuswide Committee on Appointments, Promotions, and Tenure, “and then recommend candidates to the University Affairs Committee. That is what happened here.”
Asked to square that version of events with Stevens’s comments, Peters Denny wrote, “I’m not able to comment any further on this matter.”
Stevens, along with other board members, has not responded to numerous emails from The Chronicle requesting comment.
The contradictions and rolling disclosures about this case are taking a toll on the university, said Ryan Thornburg, an associate professor of journalism.
“One of the unfortunate things that’s happened at UNC,” he said, “is it’s really hard to know who to trust.”
At 10 a.m. on May 20, the day after NC Policy Watch broke the news about Hannah-Jones’s tenure, a small group of professors convened via Zoom to talk with Hannah-Jones. “Nikole was at that point in New York,” recalled Deb Aikat, an associate professor of journalism who attended the meeting. “She starts weeping; she says, ‘Look, I did not sign up for this. I do not need another job.’”
The case has already had a chilling effect, Aikat said. Faculty members on the tenure track are worried: What if the trustees don’t like my research? Will my career be derailed?
Recently, a prominent chemistry professor withdrew her candidacy to join Chapel Hill’s faculty, citing the Hannah-Jones controversy.
“While I have never met Ms. Hannah-Jones, as a faculty member of color, I stand in solidarity with her and could not in good conscience accept a position at UNC,” Lisa Jones, an associate professor in Maryland’s school of pharmacy, said in a statement.
William Sturkey, an associate professor of history at Chapel Hill, said the case sends “a very clear message to Black faculty that we just simply do not matter and they do not care about us being here at all. To any prospective Black faculty, it’s also very clear that when you’re here, you do not have academic freedom, because if you publish something that somebody on the Board of Trustees finds disagreeable, they will step in and interfere with the tenure process.”
The prospect of donor interference in the case has created further tensions at Chapel Hill. On May 30, the day The Assembly published its article about Hussman’s emails, professors took to a faculty email list to discuss the latest bombshell with one another.
Kreiss, the associate professor, wrote: “This is absolutely unacceptable for a donor to our school — and I hope we send a clear message to that effect.”
Charlie Tuggle, a distinguished professor of journalism, pushed back.
“Is Walter Hussman an alum of our school?” he wrote. “Do our alums have the right/obligation to speak up about things happening in our school? Do those alums lose that right when they pledge money? Is there anything in the article (or anywhere else that we know of right now) that shows that Hussman threatened to withhold some or all of his donation if we made this hire? Did the university make an offer?”
Tuggle declined an interview request.
The following day, May 31, the dean, in her newsletter, drew a hard line.
“I’ve been very frank with Walter and always will be,” King wrote. “The faculty decide who is invited to join the school and what we teach. I have also been clear that the values of academic freedom and philanthropic distance are as important as core journalistic values. We are guided by all three.”
Hussman had hoped for a different message from King. In a recent phone call with her, the donor said, “Susan, I don’t quarrel with most of the facts in this thing in The Assembly, but there’s something in here that’s inaccurate. I didn’t put any pressure on you; you know that. I know that.”
In response, Hussman said, King told him, “You didn’t put pressure on me.” At the same time, in Hussman’s telling, King said she was “really uncomfortable” that he had contacted several administrators, at least one board member (Hussman won’t say who), and two other donors about Hannah-Jones.
“If you leave the impression out there that I put pressure on you, that’s just wrong,” Hussman said he told the dean. “I think you need to correct that. She declined to correct it.”
This was not the first time King and Hussman had discussed the proper guardrails of his influence. After Hussman had pledged $25 million, he expected his “core values” to be displayed on the journalism school’s website. When time dragged on and they didn’t appear, Hussman contacted King via email, who told him that her staff members had been too busy to update the site.
Hussman said he responded, “Susan, if your people in IT are so busy, I think it’s so simple to add that to the website. I’d be happy for some of our people to help on that if you’d like.”
Paraphrasing the emails, Hussman said King responded, “Walter, we’ve got to be careful. There’s a line between donors and administrators, and I can’t have your people editing my website.”
Hussman said he wrote back, “I think I’ve always known there’s a line, and I’ve tried to never cross it. I’ve never tried to get close to it. But if I ever do, just let me know I’m getting close to the line.”
Megan Zahneis, a staff reporter for The Chronicle, contributed to this article. She writes about graduate-student issues and the future of the faculty. Follow her on Twitter at @meganzahneis, or email her at email@example.com.