This story first published online at N.C. Policy Watch.
When UNC-Chapel Hill announced the hiring of Nikole Hannah-Jones last month, it was cause for celebration among students, faculty and administration at the school.
In some conservative political circles, however, it was a crisis that called into question the way the UNC System operates its 16 campuses.
According to UNC-Chapel Hill, Hannah-Jones is, in many ways, a perfect fit for the school’s Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism.
She is herself a Tar Heel, having obtained her master’s degree at the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media in 2003. In a distinguished career as an investigative reporter she’s worked for Raleigh’s News & Observer, The Oregonian in Portland and Pro Publica in New York before winning acclaim for her coverage of civil rights and racial injustice for the New York Times Magazine. She has won both the Pulitzer Prize and a MacArthur Fellowship “Genius Grant.”
“This is the story of a leader returning to a place that transformed her life and career trajectory,” said Susan King, dean of the Hussman School, in announcing the hire. “Giving back is part of Nikole’s DNA, and now one of the most respected investigative journalists in America will be working with our students on projects that will move their careers forward and ignite critically important conversations.”
On the state’s political right, however, Hannah-Jones has been met with a very different reception.
Pulitzer Prize? MacArthur Fellowship? “Questionable credentials,” said the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal (formerly known as the Pope Center for Higher Education).
One of America’s most respected investigative journalists? The same group termed that a “charade” concocted by “a powerful coalition with Democratic socialists, the media, and ‘woke’ crony capitalists.”
“This lady is an activist reporter—not a teacher,” said an unsigned editorial from the Carolina Partnership for Reform.
A controversial examination of America’s racist past
Topping the list of conservative complaints? By all indications, it is Hannah-Jones’ work on The 1619 Project, a long-form journalism undertaking that, as the Pulitzer Center put it, “challenges us to reframe U.S. history by marking the year when the first enslaved Africans arrived on Virginia soil as our nation’s foundational date.”
The project, which seeks to spur a reexamination of the way America teaches and celebrates its own history, caused debate among academics, journalists, even within the New York Times itself. Criticisms of its accuracy by some prominent historians led to edits and clarifications, but Hannah-Jones and the Times stand by the project, the introductory essay to which won her the 2020 Pulitzer for commentary.
“Obviously, they knew the hiring could be controversial,” said Daniel Kreiss, associate professor at the Hussman School. “But I think it’s [the controversy] all quite silly to be honest.”
Kreiss has been teaching at UNC for 10 years. In that time he’s taught students from across the political spectrum, he said, and seen criticism of faculty members and guest lecturers — including a 2018 lecture by conservative television commentator Tucker Carlson at the school, for which Kreiss was on stage asking questions.
Controversy is inevitable in academia and in journalism, Kreiss said, as long as tough questions are being asked. Hannah-Jones’ work is proof of that, he said, and makes her a great fit for UNC-Chapel Hill.
“Nikole Hannah-Jones is one of the most prominent journalists in the United States, frankly in the world, today,” Kreiss said. “And doing exactly the kind of work that is necessary to help the U.S. come to terms with its racial history.”
“She’s an alum we’re frankly quite proud of and should be,” Kreiss said. “We’ve had her in to give numerous talks over the years. Like her work, they’ve been rigorous, historical, investigative, and it makes a strong and forceful argument for coming to a full understanding of the U.S.’s history to move forward from there.”
Critics with ties to the UNC Board of Governors
But criticism of Hannah-Jones’ hiring isn’t coming from a noisy conservative minority in a far off corner of the state’s ongoing political culture war. It is, in the case of the UNC System, coming from inside the house.
Art Pope, a member of the UNC Board of Governors that oversees the 16-campus UNC System and a prominent GOP political donor who served as State Budget Director under former Republican Governor Pat McCrory, helped birth the Martin Center as a project of the Pope Foundation-funded John Locke Foundation. Indeed, for many years, the group, was originally named the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy after his late father.
The Martin Center and the John Locke Foundation are both enormously influential in the state’s conservative movement. Both groups produce work often cited by GOP lawmakers and members of the UNC Board of Governors that promote a more conservative direction for the state and its university system.
This week, the Martin Center’s Shannon Watkins wrote that UNC’s hiring of Hannah-Jones should be prevented by the campus’s politically appointed board of trustees. If they would prefer to delegate hiring to departments and the school’s chancellor, Watkins wrote, the UNC Board of Governors—on which Pope sits—should amend system policies to require every faculty hire to be vetted by each school’s board of trustees.
And the Martin Center isn’t the only conservative organization with Board of Governors connections raging against UNC’s new hire.
Earlier this month the Carolina Partnership for Reform—a group that’s long been linked to Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger—published an unsigned broadside in which it said Hannah-Jones would force students to conform to her political ideology if they expect to pass her classes.
“They can’t get up and leave if they disagree,” the group wrote. “They must sit there and accept her beliefs if they’re to get a good grade. Think about that.”
The Carolina Partnership for Reform makes little to no information about itself, its composition, leaders or funders available on its website. But 2018 IRS documents listed then-UNC Board of Governors chairman Harry Smith and current board chair Randy Ramsey as directors of the organization. Asked about the connection this week, the UNC System said Ramsey, who helped found the organization in 2013, resigned from his position there last year. Ramsey’s official 2021 Statement of Economic Interest, however, lists him as the group’s treasurer.
In an interview with Policy Watch this week, Jeff Hyde, president of the Partnership for Reform, said the group intentionally keeps its leadership and membership confidential to avoid too much inquiry or criticism. He said Smith and Ramsey were important to the group’s founding but are no longer involved. He declined to say who, if anyone, took their positions in the organization.
“We like to always be low profile,” Hyde said. “If you have a high profile there are always going to be people who try to dig something up on you that is nefarious.”
Hyde, a Greensboro-based conservative activist and occasional political operative, ran unsuccessfully for state Senate in 2010 and for Guilford County Republican Party Chairman in 2011.
“Everybody at times has poor judgements,” Hyde said of his failed political runs. “You just have to move on.”
As a member of the Tea Party inspired group Conservatives for Guilford County, Hyde was part of a sometimes confrontational hard right challenge to sitting Republicans his group found insufficiently conservative. The same group helped to launch the political career of Congressman Mark Walker.
In 2014, Hyde’s political group Justice 4 All NC spent $900,000—most of it coming through the Republican State Leadership Committee Super PAC—on a primary season ad suggesting North Carolina Supreme Court Justice Robin Hudson was on the side of child molesters. The ad was condemned by the N.C. Bar Association and Hudson retained her seat on the court.
Since then, Hyde has also founded two charter schools in Guilford County and served on the state Rules Review Commission, where in 2019, he became the first non-attorney to serve as chair.
Hyde declined to say who authored his group’s piece decrying the Hannah-Jones hiring, but said it’s part of the group’s “education reform” efforts.
“Cancel culture at its finest”
Kreiss, the UNC journalism professor, said groups so closely connected to the UNC Board of Governors denouncing individual hires is an unfortunate example of the continued politicization of the university system and its campuses.
“This is kind of cancel culture at its finest,” Kreiss said. “It shouldn’t be ironic, but it’s a message saying academic freedom and local autonomy don’t matter in making decision for what’s best for our schools. It’s a message that somehow the faculty, who also come from all walks of life and political persuasions, by the way, can’t decide what is best for our students and who to hire.”
“It strikes me as quite meddlesome in the affairs of a storied journalism program with a world class faculty,” Kreiss said. “But it’s an extension of national politics, this idea that we shouldn’t have an honest accounting of and debate about America’s racial history, about racial equality. It’s obvious to me that Nikole Hannah-Jones is a target for national outrage over that and in this case is standing in for a lot of things in that national debate.”
Faculty who have had the opportunity to see Hannah-Jones teach said they were impressed by her.
“I thought she was an excellent teacher,” said John Robinson, a journalism professor at UNC-Chapel Hill who had Hannah-Jones as a guest teacher in his feature writing course. “She assigned the students a story to read and she engaged with students on what made the story work and what didn’t work. Then she engaged with students about careers in journalism. She’s a UNC alum, so that interests them.”
Robinson described the class as just what a journalism course should be—a give and take, not a one-sided lecture.
“She pushed back on some of the students’ opinions and they pushed back on hers,” Robinson said. “It was a vibrant learning experience.”
“My experience is that students are active and opinionated and in most cases open minded,” Robinson said. “And so are faculty members. It would surprise me if she didn’t have that give and take in her classroom. That’s what I saw.”
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