Walter Hussman, Jr. is more than just a donor to UNC-Chapel Hill.
The UNC alum, a newspaper publisher and communications company CEO, promised to gift the university $25 million in 2019. That got his name on UNC’s once-vaunted journalism school, and his personal statement of the “core values” of journalism decorated on the school’s walls. Recently, though, Hussman has used his influence to more ignoble ends: according to reporting this weekend from the long-form digital magazine The Assembly, Hussman reached out to multiple administrative officials at UNC in order to lobby them against hiring the acclaimed journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones.
Earlier this month, NC Policy Watch reported that Hannah-Jones, a Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times journalist, the creator of The 1619 Project, and an alumna of UNC’s journalism school, had been offered the prestigious Knight Chair position in Race and Investigative Journalism. But, unlike previously appointed Knight chairs, Hannah-Jones’ offer came without the promise of tenure. Last week, The News & Observer reported, Hannah-Jones threatened to take legal action against the university, and NC Policy Watch reported this weekend that UNC has until Friday to offer tenure to Hannah-Jones or face a federal lawsuit.
Now, the emails from Hussman raise new questions about whether pressure from the school’s largest donor contributed to UNC’s Board of Trustees’ decision to deny Hannah-Jones her tenure.
In the emails, sent last summer, Hussman expresses his concerns about the university’s consideration of hiring Hannah-Jones to David Routh, vice chancellor for university development; Susan King, the dean of the Hussman School of Journalism and Media; and chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz. He had concerns about her objectivity, he wrote, and worried about connecting the journalism school to The 1619 Project.
“My hope and vision was that the journalism school would be the champion of objective, impartial reporting and separating news and opinion, and that would add so much to its reputation and would benefit both the school and the University,” Hussman is reported to have written. “Instead, I fear this possible and needless controversy will overshadow it.”
Hannah-Jones, a Black woman, has critiqued the notion of objectivity in journalism, contesting that racialized experiences specifically place journalists within the stories that they tell. The 1619 Project is built on this idea, illuminating how white historians participate in revisionist history.
“When white Americans say to me, ‘I just want factual reporting,’ what they’re saying to me is they want reporting from a white perspective … with a white normative view, and that simply has never been objective,” she told NPR’s 1A podcast last June.
In another email, Hussman conveyed specific concerns with how Hannah-Jones portrayed white Americans in her 1619 essay on post-World War II civil rights.
“Long before Nikole Hannah-Jones won her Pulitzer Prize, courageous white southerners risking their lives standing up for the rights of blacks were winning Pulitzer prizes, too,” Hussman wrote.
Hussman declined to comment to The Assembly about his emails regarding Hannah-Jones but he confirmed the substance of the emails and expressed he would not have made them public.
“He restated his belief that journalists, to regain readers’ trust, need to return to the core values displayed on the wall at the journalism school,” The Assembly’s story states.“He said he had never met Hannah-Jones but would like to.”
Comment on this story at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Support independent local journalism. Join the INDY Press Club to help us keep fearless watchdog reporting and essential arts and culture coverage viable in the Triangle.