Walter Hussman returns as UNC’s journalism school faces crisis of values, diversity

Walter Hussman returns as UNC’s journalism school faces crisis of values, diversity

- in Higher Ed, News, Top Story
Carroll Hall UNC Hussman School of Journalism (Photo by Mihaly I. Lukacs CC BY-SA 4.0)

The mega-donor’s ‘hush-hush homecoming’ reignites concern among faculty members

When Walter Hussman returned to UNC-Chapel Hill this week, he hoped to begin mending relations with the journalism school that bears his name. But that proved to be difficult, given the mega-donor’s lobbying against the hiring of Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones. 

The episode, which culminated in Hannah-Jones declining a tenure offer this summer in favor of Howard university, generated national headlines. It also sparked an ongoing debate about race, journalism, academic freedom and donor influence at the university. It strained the relationship between Hussman and the journalism school, prompting faculty and students to consider deeper questions about whether his values align with those of the school. 

This week, as the school begins its search for a new dean and faces evaluation by an accrediting association, Hussman continues to stir controversy.  

Hussman, a UNC alum and Arkansas-based media magnate, hoped to meet Friday with members of the journalism faculty. Steven King, an associate professor of emerging technologies at the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media, was asked by Dean Susan King to try to put together a meeting at which Hussman could talk to faculty members about these issues. (Steven King and Susan King are not related.) 

Susan King, dean of UNC Hussman, announced in August her decision to step down.

On Monday, Steven King sent an email to his colleagues saying he didn’t believe that was possible. “For various reasons, I do not feel we are able to assemble a representative panel that could effectively communicate the diverse and passionate views of our Faculty for a meeting this Friday,” King wrote. 

One of those various reasons: A number of key faculty members invited to the meeting declined to attend. Others want to attend, but weren’t invited. 

“I have recommended that Dean King and Mr. Hussman postpone the discussion, and I suggested we take a different approach for Friday,” King wrote. “I am inviting Mr. Hussman and the school administration (Susan [King], Charlie [Tuggle], Heidi [Hennink-Kaminski], and Danita [Morgan]) to my Lab to work through a proper process that will facilitate fruitful discussion that hopefully builds a relationship between the Faculty our named donor. We intend to leave the meeting with a roadmap for working through our differences that is agreeable to Faculty and Mr. Hussman.” 

Deb Aikat, an associate professor at the journalism school, is a member of the university’s Faculty Executive Committee. He has been outspoken about what he says was Hussman’s inappropriate interference in the hiring of Hannah-Jones, as well as Hussman’s desire to exert undue influence on the school’s direction as its named donor. 

That candor has made the academic environment uncomfortable for Aikat. He was one of several professors targeted by the university after Hussman’s donor agreement was leaked to The News & Observer in the wake of the Hannah-Jones controversy.  

Journalism Professor Deb Aikat

Though Aikat and other professors didn’t have access to the document, university officials surreptitiously read their emails and questioned the professors about the contents. This intrusion lead Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) to write letters in protest and spurred resentment among many of the journalism school’s faculty. 

The way the school is now handling what Aikat calls “the hush-hush Hussman homecoming” is just making the situation worse, he said.   

Aikat said he wanted to participate in the meeting  “I emailed the dean to say I would like to attend. I got no reply.” 

It is clear Hussman and school and university administrators want to work through those differences. Hussman pledged $25 million to the school in 2019, which led to it being named for him. But he has yet to donate much of the money. Under the terms of his donor agreement, the school won’t receive about half of it until after Hussman and his wife die.  

It’s less clear whether most of the school’s faculty members, students and alumni would like to mend the relationship or, as an increasing number are now suggesting, they would prefer to sever ties with Hussman altogether. 

Conflicting values  

The dean’s cabinet this week issued a survey to full-time journalism and media faculty members gauging what they might want from a meeting with Hussman.

Heidi Hennink-Kaminski

An analysis of the survey by Heidi Hennink-Kaminski, senior associate dean for graduate studies, found a mixed reaction. Some wanted a dialogue with Hussman while others said they didn’t see the point and thought it might be counter-productive. 

“In their responses, faculty identified what they would like to be able to share with the donor in the meeting,” Hennink-Kaminski wrote in her analysis. “Responses can be grouped into four areas: 1) information about the rigor of the tenure/hiring process at UNC; 2) new thinking about the future of journalism/ethics; 3) broader information about the non-journalism areas of the school and the values reflected therein; and 4) the damage faculty believe has done to the School’s reputation.” 

An anonymized sampling of faculty responses reviewed by Policy Watch featured questions about how Hussman sees his relationship to, and role within the school. Those responses also asked whether Hussman understands that his interference in the Hannah-Jones hiring was inappropriate and harmful, and if he would commit to abstaining from future hiring decisions. 

Several faculty members said they wanted a public acknowledgment of wrongdoing and apology from Hussman, along with a statement from school leaders that such interference from donors won’t happen in the future. 

Most of those who took the survey said they would favor an optional, moderated meeting between full-time faculty members and Hussman with an optional invitation for staff leadership to attend. 

But faculty members who spoke with Policy Watch this week said they aren’t sure any meeting can be productive if it doesn’t address an overarching problem with Hussman. 

As part of his donor agreement, Hussman’s “core values” of journalism are now displayed on a wall in the lobby of the journalism school’s home at Carroll Hall. The agreement calls for them to be etched in stone. Though faculty were not consulted on these core values or how they would be displayed, Hussman has repeatedly asserted that the school has adopted those values as its own.  

In a July survey, an overwhelming majority of the faculty members rejected the notion that that Hussman’s values represented the school and said the school should establish its own values statement.  

Faculty members at the school – and journalism experts across the country – take issue with portions of Hussman’s core values statement. Among them are the assertion that “impartiality is the greatest source of credibility” and that while the pursuit of truth is “a noble goal,” truth is “not always apparent or known immediately.” 

Nikole Hannah-Jones

Historians and journalism scholars – including some of UNC’s most prominent journalism alumni – point out that those sentiments have been used throughout journalism history to preserve the societal status quo and minimize the voices of women and racial, ethnic and religious minorities.  

In practice, faculty have argued, Hussman used his core values statement as a litmus test to argue against hiring Hannah-Jones, a prominent UNC alum and highly decorated investigative journalist. Hussman had objected to her opinion writing on racial issues, such as reparations for Black Americans and her Pulitzer Prize-winning work on The 1619 Project.

Kate Sheppard, a teaching associate professor in the journalism school, has been working on a process for determining the school’s values. In an August meeting, the faculty proposed a plan for gathering feedback and a timeline for acting on it this spring. 

“I have no problem with Walter Hussman’s values statement as a statement of Walter Hussman’s values, what he prints in his newspapers, his words,” Sheppard said. “But there’s an ongoing conversation, there always is, about values. They shift. They evolve.” 

Diversity and difficulty 

This week a team from the Accrediting Council on Education in Journalism and Mass Communications was on campus, meeting with students and faculty at the journalism school. Though the school was re-accredited, Dean Susan King shared in an email to faculty that the school is “out of compliance on the Diversity Standard.” 

Dean King said she was told the school would have “sailed through” had the accreditation taken place as scheduled this time last year. But since that time, concerns and controversy over the botched Hannah-Jones hire and Hussman’s influence have altered some perceptions of the school. 

“[T]he team found angry faculty and what was described as a culture of complaint,” the dean wrote. “They found faculty had deep worry about Walter Hussman and questioned gift agreement and donor relations. They found both students and faculty exhausted from the Nikole Hannah-Jones controversy…” 

“According to the team’s analysis, reconciling the expectation of all faculty without damaging our culture is the challenge for us as a school,” King wrote. “They told me that the reason we failed Diversity was because of culture. They said they wanted to send a message to faculty that we often talk the talk and perhaps don’t walk the walk. They indicated some faculty don’t feel welcomed, and faculty and students of color feel burdened.” 

Students of color said “we know the words but not the deeds,” Dean King wrote. 

The accreditation team also called out the school’s lack of diversity among adjunct professors, King wrote, who teach the foundational courses in the school. The team suggested the school examine its curriculum and ensure diversity is at the heart of every course, King wrote. 

Dean King did not respond to emails from Policy Watch this week. 

Aikat said the accreditors’ assessment of the school’s diversity problem is not a surprise. “We talk about diversity, we make a much vaunted spirit, but our school keeps ignoring true diversity and inclusion,” Aikat said. “The people of color in our school, faculty and students, are feeling the strain. We have to shout four times for them to hear what we are saying, what we are all about.” 

The Friday meeting to with Hussman and select faculty is a good example, Aikat said. Everyone Steven King identified as part of the meeting in his email is white, Aikat said. It was only once faculty members asked whether a member of the school’s Access, Belonging, Inclusion, Diversity and Equity (ABIDE) group should be part of the meeting that King asked for a representative from it.   

“That it doesn’t occur to someone that that is a problem, that is itself a problem,” Aikat said. The focus should not be on the “culture of complaint” in the school, Aikat said, but the substance of the complaints. Faculty and students of color are pointing out a deeper problem within the school that was put on a national stage when a wealthy, white conservative donor did battle over hiring a an eminently qualified and nationally renowned Black journalist at the school, Aikat said. And in the end, that donor got what he wanted. 

“I am concerned that he feels as though he has won and now he is returning to campus now,” Aikat said. “And maybe he will meet with some faculty and some administrators and then he can go back to Arkansas and say, ‘Hey, I met with the faculty. Everything is fine.’” 

“Everything is not fine,” Aikat said. “We know that.”