This story originally published online at NC Policy Watch.
The decision of the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill’s alumni magazine not to publish a story about controversies involving matters of race, tenure and free speech, has prompted many people within and outside the university to wonder whether university pressure played a part in the story’s demise.
The magazine, which is independent of the university, has a reputation for tackling the big controversies faced by the university as well as highlighting its achievements and that of its more than 350,000 living alumni. As one of the biggest UNC controversies in years unfolded— UNC-Chapel Hill’s botched hiring of acclaimed journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones — the publication seemed ready to tackle the issue. But with the retirement of its long-time editor, the magazine quietly suspended work on the story, leaving it in limbo for months, before ultimately deciding not to publish it at all.
Last spring Carolina Alumni Review contacted one of its best freelancers, award winning journalist Barry Yeoman about an important story.
Regina Oliver, then the magazine’s editor, told Yeoman, “There’s a big story to be written about the intersection of free speech, tenure and race,” Yeoman said in an interview this week.
Yeoman agreed to write the piece in June.
That intersection had experienced a spectacular collision a month earlier, when as Policy Watch reported, the tenure approval for Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Nikole Hannah Jones was held up in a committee of the university’s Board of Trustees after complaints from conservatives. The story would expand and grow more complicated all summer as details of the influence of conservative alumni and mega-donors was revealed. Thousands of alumni joined faculty, staff and students in pushing for a vote on the tenure question, but the university’s handling of the controversy ultimately led to Hannah-Jones rejecting the job at Chapel-Hill to take a new position at Howard University.
But Hannah-Jones’s case was just the beginning. As UNC-Chapel Hill investigated its own professors over a leaked donor agreement, faculty pushed back on the idea of major donors defining the school’s values and a veteran faculty member lost an appointment over criticisms of the university system’s governing board, Yeoman dug deeper and expanded the scope of his story, which was slated to run early this year.
Story dropped in wake of magazine leadership change
At the end of July, however, Oliver retired as editor after nearly 27 years. Until the position was filled, publisher Doug Dibbert would make editorial decisions for the magazine. In September, Dibbert told Yeoman to suspend his reporting. The magazine would pay him for the minimum number of words to which they’d agreed. But whether the piece would ever run would be up to the new editor, when they were hired. When new editor Allan Holmes came on board in November, Yeoman’s story had been on hiatus for months. With the Hannah-Jones angle now stale in many respects, Yeoman would have had to re-report and re-write much of the story.
Late last month, Holmes told Yeoman the magazine wouldn’t proceed with the story as originally assigned at all.
“If I had continued reporting and writing, it would have been ready for an early 2022 issue and it would have been timely, in terms of magazine schedules,” Yeoman said. “But because it was paused, I understood where Allan was coming from. Those months of pausing reporting and writing made a difference.”
It was understandable, but still disappointing and a little confusing. Money and time had already been invested in the story. Its root concerns were more relevant than ever at UNC. So what changed between June and September? Why was the story put on ice long enough that it would ultimately be abandoned?
When Oliver retired, Yeoman thought his story, already underway, would move forward. Instead it was put on hold.
Oliver hasn’t returned calls to Policy Watch for comment.
When the Alumni Review abandoned the story, Yeoman contacted the people he’d interviewed for it to let them know. He didn’t want his sources wondering when, or if, it was going to run. As word got around the story had been scuttled, faculty, alumni and writers who have worked for the magazine became concerned. They wondered if the Alumni Review‘s shelving of an important story about race was another example of the university trying to quietly sweep uncomfortable controversies under the rug.
Doug Dibbert, the Alumni Review publisher, is married to Debbie Dibbert, the Assistant Vice Chancellor for Principal and Major Gifts in the Office of University Development. That office had been tied to multiple controversies, from the outsized influence of major donors on recent hiring and tenure decisions to investigations into the leaking of donor agreements that drew warnings about trampling on academic freedom.
Dibbert and Holmes, the editor, say none of that factored into the decision about Yeoman’s story. It was just an unfortunate confluence of retirements and new hirings in which a story slipped through the cracks and grew stale before it could be published, they said.
Eric Muller is the law professor who a UNC Board of Governors committee refused to reappoint to the board of the UNC Press after he criticized their handling of the Silent Sam Confederate statue controversy. His story would have been part of Yeoman’s magazine piece. He said he has yet to hear a satisfactory explanation for why such a broad-reaching and still relevant story was abandoned by a publication usually unafraid to tackle controversies at the university.
“As a formal matter, this decision to shelve the story is as opaque to me as the Board of Governors decision to shelve me,” Muller said. “By that I don’t mean that there’s some legal entitlement to an explanation. But it both instances no explanation is offered, so you just apply ‘Occam’s Razor’ and conclude that these are issues that are uncomfortable for them to deal with.”
“The alumni magazine shelving a story about these things and how they happened is, at least to me, of a piece with the silence with which the original stories were met by the administration,” Muller said.
“That’s not how we operate”
The Alumni Review’s award-winning work and well-established reputation for fearless journalism speaks for itself, Dibbert told Policy Watch in an interview last week.
As part of an independent, nonprofit alumni association, the magazine has published investigative stories on the university system’s board of governors, on its athletic scandals and did in fact, run a story on the Muller controversy in the September/October 2021 issue.
That the Yeoman story didn’t come together was an issue of timing and editorial transition more than anything else, Dibbert said. He hasn’t faced pressure from any university administrators — including his wife — on decisions about what the magazine publishes, he said.
“Pressure isn’t the word I’d use,” Dibbert said. “Over my 40 years have we had occasions where colleagues at the university have expressed that they wish something hadn’t appeared? I’m sure that’s occurred. That would just be natural. There were people who were not happy we were following and sharing with our readers the issues with the NCAA. But I wouldn’t say we’ve faced pressure.”
As the state and the country have entered into a period of high political polarization, Dibbert said he’s heard from vocal alumni about individual stories or the direction of the magazine. But that hasn’t swayed the decisions made by its leadership.
“We live, unfortunately, in a time when people are rushing to their corners,” Dibbert said. “Our job is not to rush to any corner. We try to make sure we’re being fair, complete and accurate and think we have a track record of doing that.”
“Undoubtedly there are folks who wish we’d done something differently, done more, been more aggressive,” Dibbert said. “From time to time, readers express disappointment we didn’t come out and engage in advocacy on something. Our job is not to engage in advocacy. Our job is to provide complete information with which they can then find ways to become advocates, if they’re so inclined.”
Those reading some political motive into the magazine shelving a single story at a time of editorial transition are jumping to some unsupported conclusions, he said.
Yeoman’s reporting was paused and no final story was ever filed, Dibbert said. So he wouldn’t have had enough knowledge of the story’s specifics to object to parts of it or sink it because he thought it would be too sensitive. “Sometimes a story doesn’t come together, or it changes, or there’s an issue with timeliness,” Dibbert said. “But spiking a story because of pressure? That’s not how we operate.”
Holmes, the magazine’s new editor, has only been on the job for three months. But in that time he hasn’t faced pressure over stories, he told Policy Watch in an interview last week — and if he does in the future, he won’t be influenced by it.
A 1983 graduate of the university’s journalism school, Holmes has had a long career as an investigative reporter. His work has been published in Mother Jones, The New York Times, and Time. He also worked for the Center for Public Integrity, the Pulitzer Prize-winning nonprofit news organization, and was managing director of the “Government Matters” show at WJLA-TV, the ABC affiliate in Washington, D.C.
“I’m an investigative reporter, that’s my background,” Holmes said. “We’re going to consider all kinds of stories and all kinds of stories are still in the mix.”
Holmes said he isn’t sure how decisions about stories were made at the magazine before he was hired, but under his leadership they’ll be dealt with on their merits. The publication won’t shy away from its mission of keeping alumni informed about what’s going on at the university, he said —wherever that takes things.
Yeoman said given Holmes’ reputation in the industry, he believes that.
“Allan Holmes is a serious journalist,” Yeoman said. “If they wanted a cream puff publication, they would have hired a cream puff editor. They didn’t do that.”
Whatever the reason, Yeoman said, the fact the magazine chose not to move forward on a story on hot button issues at a time of heightened politicization in the university system was bound to raise eyebrows and spark questions. (Many questions have also arisen about the fact that an exhibit by photographer Cornell Watson was recently canceled at the university’s Sonja Haynes Stone Center for Black Culture and History after Watson wouldn’t agree to remove photos of the Hannah-Jones protest.)
“I can’t blame anybody for being upset about it,” he said. “I would love to write about this issue in the future,” Yeoman said. “Either for the alumni magazine or for somebody else.”
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