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One year later, Walter Hussman still denying involvement in Nikole Hannah-Jones tenure standoff

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One year later, Walter Hussman still denying involvement in Nikole Hannah-Jones tenure standoff

Jul 07, 2022 | 9:00 am ET
By Joe Killian
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One year later, Walter Hussman still denying involvement in Nikole Hannah-Jones tenure standoff
Nikole Hannah-Jones (Bell Tower photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

This week marks one year since acclaimed journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones turned down a tenure offer from UNC-Chapel Hill, choosing to instead start a new Center for Journalism and Democracy at Howard University.

Policy Watch broke the story of the UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees initially denying Hannah-Jones a vote on tenure, and deeply reported the political and donor pressure over the hire and how faculty, staff, students and alumni rallied to force the board to take an up-or-down vote on the issue.

But one key player in the saga — conservative mega-donor Walter Hussman — is still denying the role he played, despite the publication of emails that detail his lobbying against Hannah-Jones at multiple levels.

In an anniversary piece on the controversy from Poynter this week, Hussman mischaracterizes his level of involvement in the hiring process.

From the piece:

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.”

As reporting by Policy Watch, The Assembly, WRAL and the News & Observer has shown, Hussman did anything but keep his distance from the Nikole Hannah-Jones hire. Indeed, he explicitly argued the $25 million he pledged to the school, and the fact that it was renamed for his family, led him to strongly and repeatedly oppose the hire with King and go well beyond that.

As shown in his emails and admissions in later interviews, Hussman also objected to the hire in conversations with Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz and Vice Chancellor for University Development David Routh, who was also chief executive of the UNC-Chapel Hill Foundation, the nonprofit that receives gifts on behalf of the school. Hussman also e-mailed multiple UNC-Chapel Hill trustees on the issue.

One year later, Walter Hussman still denying involvement in Nikole Hannah-Jones tenure standoff

King told Policy Watch she began to feel uncomfortable with Hussman’s level of lobbying on the issue and told him so.

In an interview with Policy Watch, Hussman admitted his objections to Hannah-Jones went well beyond questions about the historical accuracy of the 1619 Project. Hussman also objected to a New York Times Magazine cover story Hannah-Jones wrote on reparations to Black Americans. In an interview with Policy Watch last year, Hussman mischaracterized the story and Hannah-Jones’s position.

In this week’s Poynter piece, which references and uses quotes from a Policy Watch story on the issue, Hussman also framed the engraving of his “core values” of journalism on a wall at the journalism school as a matter of combating a “social justice agenda” from professors there.

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

For her part, Hannah-Jones said she is just happy to be at Howard University at a crucial time for journalism in America. Her center there, which already has an endowment of $20 million, will soon announce its newly hired executive director.