UNC faculty torn by meeting with donor after tenure controversy


Walter Hussman Jr., the UNC-Chapel Hill donor who has come under fire for meddling in the matter of the hiring and controversial tenure of journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones, is expected to be back on campus this week.

But it’s a subtle throwback to its namesake, the Hussman School of Journalism and Media, which doesn’t include a meeting with the school’s faculty.

Instead, he’ll meet with a small group of administrators and a single off-campus professor.

“We intend to leave the meeting with a roadmap for resolving our differences that works for the faculty and for Mr. Hussman,” UNC-CH professor Steven King wrote in an email to his colleagues at the journalism school explaining their dating plans.

“That is problematic”

At least one faculty member, journalism professor Deb Aikat, is not happy that this “hush-hush” the meeting takes place. He said Hussman’s visit to campus is “shrouded in secrecy and a lack of transparency, accountability and honesty,” as far as the faculty is concerned.

“We have never had a situation like this where we had a secret meeting with a donor after the donor had very questionable interactions, not only with a potential hire but his comments in the media,” Aikat said. “That is problematic.”

These “dubious interactions” exploded this summer during the national controversy over Hannah-Jones tenure, a Pulitzer Prize-winning black journalist who was due to join the journalism faculty at UNC-CH as the Knight Chair in Racial and Investigative Journalism this fall.

During the hiring process, Hussman questioned his work on the 1619 project, which reframe the legacy of slavery and black Americans in the United States. He has been criticized for sharing his concerns with key UNC-CH administrators and decision-makers. He later supported them, but has said on several occasions that he did not pressure anyone regarding the hiring of Hannah-Jones.

It’s unclear what influence Hussman really had, but he had recently made a $ 25 million donation to the school which put his name on the school. Hussman’s daughter, Eliza Hussman Gaines, is also a member of the school’s founding board, which raises and manages private funds for the school.

Images of Walter Hussman and his wife, Ben, meeting Susan King, the dean of the UNC School of Media and Journalism, at their home in Carmel, Calif., August 6, 2019. The School of Media and journalism will now be called the Hussman School of Journalism and Media following a $ 25 million donation from alumnus Walter Hussman. (Johnny Andrews / UNC-Chapel Hill) Johnny Andrews

Hussman’s money also came with conditions. The accord demanded that its core values ​​statement of how journalism should be conducted be set in stone and displayed prominently within the school. Numerous journalism professors were bothered by this after learning about Hussman’s role in the Hannah-Jones tenure affair.

And they are still looking clarity on donor agreements and interference.

Ultimately, Hannah-Jones turned down the UNC-CH work, in part because of Hussman. She said she couldn’t maintain her dignity and work for a school named after her.

Instead, she served as the first Knight Chair at Howard University, a historically black university.

Faculty concerns about Hussman’s visit

In preparation for Hussman’s visit to campus, full-time faculty received a survey asking them about a possible meeting with Hussman.

Based on survey analysis obtained by The News & Observer. The report was written by members of Dean Susan King’s cabinet and shared this week.

The majority of the 31 faculty members who responded were interested in meeting with the donor in an open and moderated in-person forum that included faculty and staff. Some suggested a private meeting to avoid raising tensions and attracting media attention. And a handful said they weren’t at all interested in meeting.

A banner identifying the Hussman School of Journalism and Media at UNC-Chapel Hill hangs above the steps of Carroll Hall in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, pictured here on Wednesday July 14, 2021. Julia Wall [email protected]

While some faculty members wanted to give Hussman the opportunity to “explain his position firsthand, without being filtered by the media,” others said they were skeptical of his interest in “listening or understand the faculty point of view ”.

Some want to know why he intervened in the conversation about Hannah-Jones and how Hussman views his role as a donor. Others are looking for a promise that he won’t interfere with future hiring processes and an outright apology, according to the report.

Faculty members also argued that a meeting was of no value. Either they feared it would make matters worse, or they said they were clear on Hussman’s position or that such a meeting was suitable for the development office, not the faculty, according to the report.

Professor Steven King was invited to moderate a faculty discussion with Hussman during this visit, according to the email to faculty.

“For various reasons, I don’t think we are in a position to assemble a representative panel that could effectively communicate the diverse and passionate views of our faculty for a meeting this Friday,” King wrote.

He suggested postponing the larger faculty discussion and offered this alternative where he considers sharing faculty concerns with Hussman.

Participants expected to meet with Hussman are Steven King, Dean Susan King, Associate Dean for Development and Alumni Affairs Danita Morgan, Senior Associate Dean for Undergraduate Studies Charlie Tuggle and Senior Associate Dean for Graduate Studies Heidi Hennink-Kominski.

Hussman and Dean Susan King did not respond to interview requests. Steven King declined to comment.

Walter Hussman Jr.’s name appears on a “statement of core values” which can be seen on the wall in the lobby of Carroll Hall in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, the building housing the Hussman School of Journalism and Media, pictured here Wednesday, July 14, 2021. Julia Wall [email protected]

Go forward with Hussman

Aikat said the management of the journalism school tried to select the professors to join the private meeting with Hussman, but the faculty members refused. He believes the school’s faculty should meet with Hussman in an open session to resolve unanswered questions about the school’s journalistic values ​​and the Hannah-Jones situation.

Otherwise, this visit will simply allow Hussman to say he has spoken with the leaders and professors at UNC-CH and move on, without any real responsibility, Aikat said.

In his email, King requested time on the agenda for the next faculty meeting to update, brief, and answer questions about the plan to move forward with Hussman. He plans to ask faculty members to nominate and vote on a leader and committee, approved by the dean, to work on this plan.

“Donors are critical to our success, as are autonomy and academic freedom,” King wrote. “I believe we can maintain these core values ​​while encouraging current and future donors to generously support our worthy efforts. “

The bulk of Hussman’s $ 25 million donation has yet to be released, and he assured the university that his personal and financial commitment to the school “remains unwavering.”

This story was originally published October 14, 2021 12:43 pm.

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Kate Murphy covers higher education for The News & Observer. Previously, she covered higher education for the Cincinnati Enquirer in the Investigative and Corporate Team and USA Today Network. Her work has won state awards in Ohio and Kentucky and she was recently named the 2019 Education Writers Association finalist for digital storytelling.
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