It’s Thursday, June 3. And we’re looking at reaction to our exclusive story on Nikole Hannah-Jones and Walter Hussman Jr.
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Read the Piece: “Nikole Hannah-Jones, a Mega-Donor, and the Future of Journalism”
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.”
The Assembly’s piece sparked a national reaction that went beyond the particulars of UNC’s hiring decision.
Douglas Blackmon, a Pulitzer Prize winning historian who had previously worked for one of Hussman’s papers, rejected the idea that Hussman was a true supporter of objectivity:
“Major kudos to The Assembly and John Drescher for digging up this back story, but Walter Hussman is absolutely NOT ‘an ardent believer in strict reporter objectivity,'” Blackmon wrote. “He’s a founding father of the fake news era … & destroyed one of the South’s most heroic newspapers.”
Blackmon elaborated on that backstory as part of a story on Hussman published in the Washington Post yesterday.
Matthew Yglesias, a co-founder of Vox, noted the tension between philanthropy and academic freedom:
“Donor influence is clearly the biggest threat to academic freedom but institutions like having money and ‘give us lots of money and in exchange we won’t pay any attention to what you think or want’ is not a great fundraising pitch.”
Wes Lowery, a correspondent for 60 Minutes who was cited in the piece, argued that Hussman’s refusal at first to comment publicly undermined his own argument on objectivity:
“Hard to find a better example of the insanity of pursuit of the ‘perception of objectivity’ than a powerful donor working in private to prevent someone from being hired and then, when reached for comment, refusing to discuss it citing his need for public journalistic neutrality.”
Adam Serwer, a staff writer at The Atlantic who has written extensively about the 1619 Project argued that the critiques Hussman raised were ideological in nature:
“An objection to the 1619 Project on the grounds that it does not focus enough on the roles of “courageous whites” is an ideological objection, not a factual or historical one.”
A National Review writer, Alexandra DeSanctis Marr shot back: “We’re just now getting to the objections about things other than inaccurate facts and bad history, because getting through those took a while.”
Tomorrow is the deadline set by Hannah-Jones’ legal team for a renewed tenure offer. The ball appears to be with the UNC Board of Trustees to review the resubmitted tenure package and decide what to do.
In the meantime, you can read more on the backstory to the piece in Eric Frederick’s interview with Drescher, our contributing editor.
In other news, last month’s story on the death of Marcus Smith in Greensboro and the systemic use of hog-tying by city police is back in the news.
At the end of Tuesday’s city council work session, a last minute statement was read by Michelle Kennedy – who spoke to The Assembly for our piece in May.
Read the Piece: “The Perfectly Legal Hog-Tying Death of Marcus Smith”
“I am the person who asked us to have an independent investigation, both as it relates to the events connected to Marcus Smith, and a larger investigation around institutional culture and essentially an agency-wide conduct review of the Greensboro Police Department,” Kennedy said before stating that the Council had opted not to move forward.
“On the advice of the City Attorney, Council met in closed session and received advice from an attorney who practices exclusively in the area of independent investigation. Council has decided not pursue any such investigation at this time.”
Ian McDowell, who reported on this for The Assembly, continues to follow the story. With the city’s decision not to pursue an independent investigation, all eyes will be on the likely civil rights trial this fall to shed more light on what happened.
Kyle Villemain is the founder and editor-in-chief of The Assembly. He is a former speechwriter who grew up in the Triangle and graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill.
This editor’s note was originally sent as a newsletter to all subscribers. You can read more about Kyle and the magazine’s founding here.
Photo Credit: Chris Ocana