November 9, 2021

It’s fair to say that all hell broke loose at the University of North Carolina Hussman School of Journalism and Media on July 6. Nikole Hannah-Jones announced on national television that morning that she had declined a prestigious UNC chair on race and investigative journalism and was going to Howard University instead.

Before sunset, angry faculty had signed an open letter denouncing long delays in making tenure part of the job offer to Hannah-Jones as “appalling” and “frankly racist.”

Detailed inquests have followed. Behind-the-scenes political interference from trustees and legislators is still suspected.

Four months later, the main players in the drama are taking measured steps to move on. Feelings were too hot, I was told several times, for a fast turnaround.

Case in point: The Knight Foundation still intends to fund, and UNC intends to fill, the chair on race and investigative journalism. (Knight is separately funding a new chair for Hannah-Jones at Howard). However, the search to fill the position was deferred until the spring semester. That buys time for some internal recentering and trying to assure that the school’s considerable national reputation has not been gravely hurt as it looks for candidates.

A second challenge is to mend relations between faculty and Walter Hussman Jr., its principal funder with a $25 million pledge for whom the school is now named.

Hussman, owner and publisher of The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, has been accused by critics of putting his thumb on the scales to block Hannah-Jones. Conceding that he did not think highly of her scholarship in the much-decorated “1619 Project” and said so, Hussman told me in an interview the evening of July 6 that he had not meant to intervene.

Hussman visited the UNC campus for two days in mid-October. He had hoped to meet with the whole faculty and do so at an earlier date, Hussman said, but was told “for a month or two that people were too upset.” Even after postponements, he continued, he was told that a meeting open to all 48 faculty members “might turn into a demonstration rather than a conversation.”

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. Hannah-Jones later announced she would instead teach at Howard University. (AP Photo/Jonathan Drew)

Instead, Dean Susan King delegated running the meeting to faculty member Steven King (no relation) and four others. It was more of an icebreaker than a hashing out of issues, though Hussman did get time to make the case that in his view he hadn’t lobbied to blackball Hannah-Jones.

Steven King told me about his role and what he expects to happen next. “I’m just an associate professor with no administrative role whatsoever,” he said, “but I like trying to solve problems. I’ve done some of that (in other contexts), so I volunteered to the dean to act as facilitator.”

“The school has been through a lot,” he continued. “It is important to think through all aspects of the situation, including public perceptions.” That will take a series of meetings rather than a single clearing-the-air session, he said.

“I can see a path that could lead to a better relationship for all within our school,” Steven King emailed me last week. “… (That) will take time and effort but all of us, including the Hussmans, are hopeful and committed to the process.”

Hussman and his gift were targeted to journalism. Both Kings told me that one threshold piece of business was to acquaint him with the school’s strategic communications (advertising and public relations) programs. That faculty group doesn’t know him and he doesn’t know them. Around 60% of the school’s nearly 900 undergraduate students plan careers in those fields rather than news.

The school is pursuing a comparable gift to Hussman’s for the strategic media side of the curriculum, and that would come with co-naming rights.

Susan King joked with me in an interview, “If I won the lottery, I would donate another $25 million, and we could call it the Hussman-King school.”

In practice, King remains in search of that donor in her final months as dean, then will hand the quest off to her successor.

Steven King said that rank-and-file faculty had felt out of the loop on two key developments. In Hannah-Jones’ hiring, there was not the typical broad search with multiple candidates, then narrowed to a few finalists. In the case of Hussman’s gift and renaming the school, the agreement was a fait accompli by the time they heard about it.

There were reasons for both, Susan King said. The usual protocols were followed in the attempted hiring of Hannah-Jones as a full professor, including extensive review by senior faculty of the portfolio required for a recommendation of tenure.

The one exception was that other candidates were not considered. However, there is a specific waiver in the university’s rules allowing that for outstanding candidates. In Hannah-Jones’ case, with her long record of outstanding work and prizes, Susan King said, “Who could possibly have been better?”

Journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones is interviewed at her home in the Brooklyn borough of New York on July 6, 2021. (AP Photo/John Minchillo, File)

As for the Hussman gift, Susan King said, the terms of such pledges are negotiated over a period of time and kept confidential. (The agreement has since been leaked, revealing that only a small portion of the $25 million has been paid, the rest to come in succeeding years and then after the death of Hussman and his wife).

One provision of the agreement, which likely seemed unobjectionable in 2019, mandated that a Statement of Core Values that Hussman runs daily in the Democrat-Gazette and other papers he owns be engraved in stone and prominently displayed at the journalism school.

The values statement is literally a product of the last century. Hussman has told me it embodies what he learned as a student at UNC in the 1960s, then tried to practice as a young journalist and as a publisher in the years since.

The statement refers to “impartiality” five times in seven brief paragraphs. It reads as a manifesto for objectivity without using the word. Is that the right set of guiding principles for 2021 and beyond?

Hussman thinks so. “I’d like to see it embraced, or maybe reembraced by the faculty,” he said.

To some of them, though, the statement seems oblivious to the need for diversity, equity and inclusion awareness (as Hannah-Jones would have brought with force), even a relic of an extended era of white privilege in journalism.

Or maybe that is too literal. Columbia’s Journalism School has displayed a similar statement from patron Joseph Pulitzer since 1951. The Dallas Morning News had a credo from longtime publisher George Dealey on the facade of its headquarters, its future uncertain now that the Morning News has moved to smaller offices.

The New York Times displayed a statement of Adolph S. Ochs’ “without fear or favor” business principles for many years behind a bust of him in a niche of its headquarters lobby. The bust made it to the company’s new offices, but not the engraving.

In time, Hussman’s core values would probably take on the same historical/memorial character, and that change is in process. In July, Susan King posted an addendum to the announcement of Hussman’s gift. Among other things, it said:

While we share with Hussman a deep desire to restore America’s trust in journalism, and to prepare our journalism graduates to serve the public and understand the difference between reporting and opinion, I want to make clear that his statement of values is short of the mark in encompassing the school’s values. They are too narrow to reflect the full mission of the school, the breadth of the teaching, research and creative activity that have built our reputation and notably lack the words “democracy” and “diversity,” which are two of the key values that permeate our teaching today.

Hussman is good-humored but persistent. The permanent display was to go up promptly, he said, and it has now been two years. The engraved-in-granite part matters to him, too. “That way someone won’t come along in 10 years and decide to take it down.” (The values statement remains on display, just not as an engraving.)

Walter Hussman Jr., publisher of the statewide newspaper The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, explains to members of the Hope, Arkansas Rotary Club how to access and use the paper’s digital replica on an iPad in Hope, Ark. on May 23, 2019. (Hannah Grabenstein/AP)

My take: Terms of a compromise are not obvious, but one will probably emerge. The notion, advanced in a recent News & Observer editorial, that the school should split with Hussman and return the money seems far-fetched.

“He’s been a very loyal alumnus for more than 50 years and that’s not going to change,” Susan King said. A large, unrestricted gift like his is every fundraisers’ dream, she added. “I’m optimistic.”

The wounds are deep, however. For her part, Hannah-Jones said in a profile in Vanity Fair that she is getting on with revisions of “The 1619 Project” in an expanded book format and planning a new academic center at Howard.

But Hannah-Jones also said in the piece the monthslong delay approving her tenure application hit her at a bad time. “‘I was just exhausted, and I was like, this is exactly why I just accepted it,’ she recalls. ‘But then the next day, I did what I do, which is, ‘How can I get vengeance?’”

The day she announced she was going to Howard, she posted a lengthy statement with her lawyers, thanking Dean Susan King and faculty supporters while lambasting Hussman and the trustees.

I spoke with Deb Aikat, an activist member of the faculty (and incoming president of AEJMC, the association for journalism educators and professionals). While critical of both the process and result with Hannah-Jones, he too has a degree of optimism. “Our school is starting to move on,” he told me. Race and journalism “is an area in which we are investing when many other places are not.”

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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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