July 6, 2022

A year ago Wednesday morning, Nikole Hannah-Jones announced on national television that she was spurning a faculty appointment at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to instead start a center for investigative journalism at Howard University.

Hannah-Jones has emphatically moved on, fundraising for the new Center for Journalism and Democracy and preparing for its launch this fall, while also expanding her 1619 Project for The New York Times into a book and co-authoring a version for children.

“A year later, I am just grateful for the opportunity to be at Howard University and to be building an important institution as our democracy sits in peril,” Hannah-Jones emailed me. She added that an executive director has been hired and will be announced soon along with a strategic plan and an endowment total (already at $20 million).

At UNC, though, the aftereffects linger. The UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media has had its 64-year-old accreditation reduced to provisional, with two years to improve diversity and inclusion efforts, along with resolving some governance questions.

The American Association of University of Professors also took the rare step of censuring the entire UNC system over institutional racism and political interference that it judged threatening to academic freedom.

A new dean, Raul Reis, who comes from running the large journalism program at Emerson College in Boston, begins work this week with those issues to sort out and a search to lead for what would have been Hannah-Jones’ position.

Part of the turmoil during her courtship for the UNC Knight Chair was a charge that the school’s namesake donor Walter E. Hussman Jr. had objected, leading to delays in an offer including tenure.

Hussman has acknowledged that he criticized the historiography of The 1619 Project and told then-dean Susan King that he did not support the offer. But he said he had no further involvement and has been doubly careful not to meddle since.

“I keep my distance from any hiring decisions,” Hussman told me in a phone interview. “I wouldn’t want to donate to a school that allows that.”

A related issue has not yet been fully resolved. When Hussman pledged $25 million to the school, he stipulated that a statement of core values he runs daily in his Arkansas Democrat-Gazette be engraved in granite and displayed at the school.

After the Hannah-Jones turmoil, the statement was removed from the school’s website, but a written version remains painted on an entryway banner. Hussman continues to hope that the school adopts as its own the principles, which advocate traditional standards of fairness and objectivity. But he recognizes now that may not happen, he said.

“If a professor says you shouldn’t follow them and (suggests) a social justice agenda instead,” Hussman told me, “I’d like for a student to leave class, look (at the statement) and make up their own minds.”

Some faculty critics, including King (who is staying on as a professor), said the values were fine as far as they went but needed a broader vision of inclusivity if they were to represent the journalism school’s mission.

“They resonate with me but they’re not the school’s values,” King told an interviewer this spring. “They’re his values. It’s not like we have to pledge our allegiance to them.”

Hussman likes the statement as it is, but he surprised me with an embrace of the spirit of The 1619 Project. “I think it would be a great idea to have a new award,” he said, for newspaper coverage of past instances of racial injustices. He floated the idea at UNC and offered to put up money for a $25,000 prize but did not find takers for the idea.

At the Democrat-Gazette, he said, the paper has had extensive coverage revisiting Arkansas’ deadly Elaine Massacre that occurred in the so-called Red Summer of 1919, a postwar wave of white terrorism and racial violence.

In the interests of healing discord at the school, Hussman has visited four times, most recently last week, for one-on-one meetings with faculty members.

Demonstrators gather Friday, June 25, 2021, on University of North Carolina campus in Chapel Hill, N.C., to demand that the university offer tenure to award-winning investigative journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones. (AP Photo/Jonathan Drew)

Deb Aikat, a long-tenured faculty member who has met with Hussman several times, told me late last year that despite bad feelings, only a few outliers on the faculty wanted to cut ties with Hussman. Even fewer now, he said in an interview last week.

Some regret remains about losing Hannah-Jones, Aikat conceded. “She is one of the most prominent persons in the field — that would have attracted students.”

A search for the position was delayed until this fall with hopes of having a selected candidate in place a year from now. It remains to be seen whether there is a cloud hanging over the job, but Knight chairs are prestigious and well-paid.

Meanwhile, Aikat said, three new faculty members have been recruited in the last year and will be announced soon. The school is also taking great pride, he said, in recently winning the Hearst competition for student journalism excellence for the seventh time in the last eight years.

Undergraduate applications remain strong, he said, though there appeared to be a dip at the graduate level with fewer people of color applying than hoped.

“We are moving on,” Aikat said, “but we are not looking away from our problems.”

Hannah-Jones’ influence does remain on campus in one other way. The Ida B. Wells Society for Investigative Reporting, which she co-founded, has been housed for three years at UNC (where Hannah-Jones received a master’s degree) and remains there.

The support group for investigative journalists will soon begin a search for a new director, Hannah-Jones told me, but “it is still serving members” and she remains active.

I have long been curious about one aspect of Hannah-Jones’s decision. The final board of trustees’ offer of the UNC chair with tenure came just a week before she announced that she was rejecting it. Was the tenure offer still important to her, I asked, even after she had chosen Howard instead?

She replied, “I deserved a tenure vote. I deserved to be treated like every other candidate that came before me, and it was important to stand up for not just myself but all faculty from marginalized groups. So, yes.”

Correction: This article was updated to correct the number of years that the Ida B. Wells Society for Investigative Reporting has been housed at UNC. 

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Rick Edmonds is media business analyst for the Poynter Institute where he has done research and writing for the last fifteen years. His commentary on…
Rick Edmonds

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