The Assembly, a new digital magazine in North Carolina, has more today on Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Publisher Walter Hussman’s opposition to the University of North Carolina journalism school hiring Nikole Hannah-Jones as a distinguished professor.
Short version: He appears to have dug his hole deeper.
Hannah-Jones won the Pulitzer Prize as creator of the 1619 Project on four centuries of slavery in the U.S. It was presented as commentary and it has spawned a furious counter-attack from conservatives because, well, it makes white people look bad. Political opposition to her, several have reported, led to the UNC Board of Trustees not granting her tenure, as customarily done for distinguished professors.
The Assembly broke the story that Hussman had talked to the school dean, a member of the UNC board of trustees and others about his negative feelings toward Hannah-Jones’ work. He carries weight in UNC circles, the J-school, which he attended, having recently been renamed in his honor following the pledge of a $25 million gift.
Today, The Assembly reports on interviews Hussman has given since the story created huge media coverage (except in his own newspaper). And this is the interesting part from its newsletter today:
After our story published, Walter Hussman Jr., the $25M UNC-CH donor who quietly pushed back against Nikole Hannah-Jones’ hiring, spoke publicly to WRAL, ABC 11, the N&O, Policy Watch, and others. In short: Yes I privately shared my concerns, but I didn’t intend to influence anything.
On Wednesday night, Hussman reached back to The Assembly’s John Drescher, who broke the story.
“I spoke with Susan King yesterday,” Hussman wrote, “and told her I was a bit dismayed that the impression from your article was that I had pressured her to not hire Nikole Hannah Jones. She confirmed to me that I had not pressured her. She said she was concerned that I was sharing my concerns with her and a few others. I reaffirmed that it was a unilateral conveyance of my concerns and I did not expect any response from any one to whom I sent those e mails.”
In a statement to The Assembly today, the journalism school dean Susan King disputed Hussman’s characterization and said she feared Hussman was trying to influence the decision.
“I felt worried enough about Walter’s repeated questions challenging our hiring of Nikole Hannah-Jones as Knight Chair and his subsequent call to at least one other donor that I asked for help from others in the administration at the university,” King wrote. “I wasn’t clear who else he was calling and I was worried he was trying to influence the outcome.
“I was clear with Walter throughout the process about my worries and that his involvement might be seen as trying to influence the board, the last stop on the tenure process. I was explicit with him about donors’ role in academic affairs and Walter said he understood.”
In Hussman’s email to The Assembly yesterday, he also wrote that any alumnus “should be able to convey their concerns about university affairs to Deans, administrators, or board members. Once conveyed, it is up to the university to make their decisions….I appreciate your attempt to be fair in your reporting.”
Two previously unreported portions of last year’s emails between Hussman and King, which were obtained by The Assembly, are worth noting as readers work to understand what donor influence does and does not look like.
In a December email to King, in which Hussman said King needed to be informed about the praise and criticism of Hannah-Jones’ work on the 1619 Project, Hussman explicitly noted his naming gift: “With our name on the school, I feel I need to do the same … looking at both sides.”
Later in the email, he expressed concerns about Hannah-Jones’ work and said he feared her hiring would detract from the school’s mission. He copied that email to the chancellor and to the university’s top fundraiser, David Routh, who would not typically be involved with a faculty hiring decision. Hussman had sent a prior email to Routh expressing his concerns about Hannah-Jones.
Another email, in August, shows the lengths administrators were going to assuage Hussman’s concerns. As Hannah-Jones’ tenure package was in review, King connected Hussman and Jim Leloudis – a leading historian on campus and the co-chair of the UNC Commission on History, Race, and a Way Forward.
“Jim, you told me you would love to talk to Walter about some of the criticism of Nikole Hannah-Jones’ work around the founding fathers and slavery,” she wrote. “Walter would love to hear your insights.”
It’s unclear how that conversation went. As Hussman notes, his concerns remain. Leloudis and his committee recently wrote a blunt letter to the Board of Trustees arguing their failure to grant Hannah-Jones tenure has “enlisted the university in the project of historical denialism.”
A $25 million donor was merely “sharing concerns” not applying pressure or attempting to influence a decision? Please. Imagine the sneer from the Democrat-Gazette editorial page if the only facts changed in this account were names: Say George Soros wrote identical messages in opposition to the appointment of Tom Cotton to a distinguished faculty position at Harvard not long after a $25 million gift.
A bit of local perspective on a core issue in this controversy: The Assembly detailed Hussman’s professed commitment to honest, fair journalism, with a clear dividing line between news and opinion as part of the justification for his “concerns” about Hannah-Jones. It noted the “statement of core values” the D-G publishes daily, now mounted on a plaque at the Hussman J-School.
I have a three-word response to this:
John Robert Starr.
For almost 14 years, Starr controlled the reporting staff as managing editor of Hussman’s newspaper, the Arkansas Democrat, during its successful war with the Arkansas Gazette, where I worked, while writing a highly opinionated daily column.
After Starr’s departure, a subsequent editor ordered the rewriting of Little Rock school desegregation history in a manner more in keeping with the views of segregationists. That editor also, coincidentally, ordered annual, high-profile tributes to David O. Dodd, hanged in Little Rock as a Confederate spy but venerated by the Lost Cause as the Boy Martyr of the Confederacy.
Even today, Hussman’s thumb rests on the scale of school coverage when it comes to charter schools and similar efforts he supports financially and editorially
The Hussman core values, now posted at his namesake school, says in part
Credibility is the greatest asset of any news medium, and impartiality is the greatest source of credibility.
UPDATE: The man who used Bob Starr to win the newspaper war talks more about his “core” with NC Policy Watch, spewing the same stuff about Nikole Hannah-Jones. Some in North Carolina aren’t buying.
But Hussman’s rationalizations of his behavior raise more questions than they answer, said a member of the school’s board of trustees this week.
“The first thing you have to ask yourself is, ‘why is Walter Hussman so informed about the hiring decisions at this school?’” said the board member, who asked not to be identified so that they could discuss a confidential personnel matter.
“He’s not a member of the board of trustees,” the board member said. “He doesn’t sit on the UNC Board of Governors. He’s not a member of the faculty or the tenure committee. He’s a wealthy alum and big-dollar donor. But as early as last summer, in September before this even comes to the board, he’s emailing the top administrators at the school and he’s contacting former and current board members about things so confidential we’re told we can’t discuss them publicly.”
The people Hussman contacted are important, the UNC trustee said.
“If he’s privy to who is getting hired and who isn’t and he feels like he has to reach out and weigh in and make himself part of that process, and he wants to reach out to Dean King, that’s strange enough by itself,” the board member said. “But he contacted the chancellor. He contacted David Routh, whose job is to deal with financial gifts to the university. For him to now say that the money he pledged to the school isn’t in any danger over this is a little disingenuous, I think.”
“He’s completely outside this process and he’s contacting the people who are involved with financial giving over his concerns about university hires,” the board member said. “That’s throwing your weight around because you know you can exercise your influence, based on your gifts to the school. It is a threat. I don’t see how you can see that any other way.”
Hussman denies that. “That could have been inferred, but it was never implied,” he said.
Hussman said that someone at UNC asked him directly if the hiring of Hannah-Jones would affect his donation.
“And I said the answer to that is ‘no,’” Hussman said. “One word: N-O. No. I couldn’t have been more clear about that.”
This article is another deserved rough ride for Hussman. Though he denies exerting pressure, the article notes:
Hussman, however, acknowledged sending as many as five emails expressing his concerns about the hire to King, Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz and Routh, who is also chief executive of the UNC-Chapel Hill Foundation, the nonprofit that receives gifts on behalf of the school. Hussman also said he sent the emails to at least one member of the UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees, who he did not name.
— NC Policy Watch (@NCPolicyWatch) June 3, 2021