PW exclusive: A conversation with former UNC journalism school dean Susan King

PW exclusive: A conversation with former UNC journalism school dean Susan King

Susan King, former dean of UNC Hussman (Photo by Johnny Andrews/UNC-Chapel Hill)

Despite the frustrations of her stormy final year in office, King remains optimistic about the future of the ‘J School’ and the profession it supports

Last week Susan King was inducted into the NC Media & Journalism Hall of Fame, a career curtain call after completing a decade as dean of the UNC-Chapel Hill’s Hussman School of Journalism and Media.

But as King was being celebrated, newly released documents revealed disturbing details of the rockiest period of her tenure as dean: the school’s failed attempt to hire acclaimed journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones, its struggle with its namesake donor, and the university’s investigation of journalism faculty over leaked donor documents.

In an exclusive interview with Policy Watch this week, King reflected on the investigation, the reality of leaked documents as part of journalism and democracy, the school’s relationship with Arkansas media magnate Walter Hussman Jr., and why Carolina’s journalism school may come through it all stronger than ever.

Controversial university investigation into leaked donor agreement was “worrisome,” eroded faculty trust

Last summer, as furor over political and donor interference in Hannah-Jones’s hiring peaked, the donor agreement between the university and Hussman began to circulate on campus.

The document, which the school considered confidential, was stored on the university’s Database for Advancing our Vision of Institutional Excellence (DAVIE) server, where King said hundreds of people could have accessed it.

After The News & Observer published the document on July 14, the university launched an investigation that seemed to center on the journalism school faculty. Those faculty members would have had no access to the document before it leaked, King told Policy Watch. But they had been critical of Hussman and the agreement, which raised questions about retaliation and an attempt to silence dissent among the faculty.

As Policy Watch first reported earlier this month, the investigation expanded to include as many as 22 people – including King herself. Investigators read faculty member emails without their knowledge, secured approval to search cloud storage and backups on their computers, and called an undisclosed number of individuals in for questioning.

Some faculty members cooperated. Others refused.

King understood why university investigators contacted her. As dean, she was a signatory to the donor document. Though she didn’t have her own copy, she could understand why they would want to question her. The questioning of her fellow faculty members, however, rubbed her the wrong way.

“I had no doubt there was some security issue, but it wasn’t our security issue,” King said.

As the dean of the school, I didn’t think they were the ones at all involved. It appears to me there were other avenues for that to have gotten out.”

“There was pretty widespread interest, campus-wide, in the whole Nikole [Hannah-Jones] thing,” King said. “I think there was probably widespread interest in making sure some of the facts got out.”

King, though, was familiar with leaks.

“To me, there are always going to be leaks,” King said. “Those in power are always going to be worried about leaks.”

King began her Emmy-winning news career in local television and went on to stints working for famed CBS news anchor Walter Cronkite, reporting for ABC, NBC, and CNN, and hosting shows on NPR. She served as a White House correspondent during President Ronald Reagan’s administration and five years as a political appointee under President Bill Clinton.

“As a reporter and also someone who’s also worked for the government, leaked documents are just one of the realities of life,” King said. “Often people do investigations. I’ve never seen them turn out well. Rarely have I seen them find the answers. I understand why reporters won’t respond to them [and why] various players are worried about them.”

King wasn’t worried, she said. Guided by her instincts as a reporter, she acted with caution and asserted her rights. When a university attorney contacted her to set up a time for questioning, she was polite but firm.

“I said, ‘I’d be glad to talk to you, but I’d like to know the scope of this and what some of the questions might be, so I can be prepared.’ I asked some questions back.”

When she got a vague response, she again asked for questions that she could review with her lawyer.

“I never heard another word,” King said.

The university’s handling of the investigation – and how little is still known about its scope and specifics – are worrisome, she said.

The university took seven months to respond to public document requests regarding the investigation and then redacted all the names and most of the specifics. This erodes trust with the faculty and the public, King said.

“My hope would be that the university would see this as an opportunity to begin rebuilding trust with the faculty,” King said. “But so much redaction in these documents is worrisome. Faculty see these documents, but there’s so much redacted you can’t tell the scope of it.”

The shadow of Walter Hussman

As journalists and the school’s journalism faculty members continue to seek details on the investigation, a larger cloud still hangs over the school.

Walter Hussman and his $25 million pledge continue to be controversial among some faculty. (Photo by Mihaly I. Lukacs CC BY-SA 4.0)

Still largely unresolved: Hussman, a high-profile alum, used his access to confidential information about Hannah-Jones’s hiring to lobby against her – actions he has continued to defend. Hussman initially declined to comment publicly on the incident, citing journalistic objectivity and the need to remain at a distance from public controversies.

That led to charges of hypocrisy from journalists and journalism scholars when his emails arguing against Hannah-Jones’s hire were published, demonstrating the objectivity he preached did not prevent him from attempting to influence the process behind the scenes. That publicity, in turn, led Hussman to give a series of interviews defending his actions.

King felt uncomfortable about the episode. As dean, she had praised Hussman, whose $25 million pledge to the school was the largest gift in its history; the journalism school was subsequently named for Hussman. She had supported his request for a statement of values he prints in the newspapers he owns to be etched in stone on a wall in the school’s lobby.

“They resonate with me but they’re not the school’s values,” King said. “They’re his values. It’s not like we have to pledge our allegiance to them.”

Then King watched as Hussman publicly declared that those values were now the school’s values – an assertion rejected by many students and faculty members – and used his interpretation of them to lobby against Hannah-Jones.

Some students and faculty members questioned King’s decision to discuss the Hannah-Jones situation with Hussman at all, wondering if she inspired his opposition to a hire about which he might otherwise have had no knowledge.

But King said word of Hannah-Jones’s hire was already in the wind. The choice was praised by some alums who had heard about it and criticized by conservatives who opposed Hannah-Jones’s The 1619 Project.

The struggle to get a tenure vote on the school’s board of trustees ended up uniting the school and the campus, King said, as painful as it was. “I’ve never seen UNC’s entire campus, entire faculty, come together on any issue like that,” King said.

“I’m never going to be Pollyanna, but in the end the Board of Trustees voted for her,” King said. “The campus came together. Our faculty came together. And in the end, she got the approval. I think that is an important piece to remember.”

That doesn’t mean the battle wounds aren’t real, King said.

“I think it’s going to take time to heal,” she said.

“But we now have a new dean, [Raul Reis], a man of color,” King said. “To me that’s a positive piece, that he was willing to come. He’s been dean at two other places. And here’s a chance to rebuild confidence in the school and stand by some of the diversity issues we hold in the highest regard.”

Enhanced diversity produces better journalism

As highlighted by recent debates and discussions regarding the state of modern journalism, King said, ideas like “objectivity” and “impartiality” must go beyond Hussman’s conceptions of them, and address the diversity issues that can determine whether impartiality is even possible.

“I go into my first newsroom, I’m the only woman,” King said. “They’re there talking about what the news is. They’re talking about what they and their buddies were talking about on the golf course. They weren’t talking about what the moms in the neighborhood thought was news, the young women. I come in and say, ‘Well, I think this is a story…’”

“My whole life has been about changing the dynamic of what is news, to make sure it reflects the different points of view,” King said. “That doesn’t mean I think all those guys were bad guys. They weren’t. They were just of their time and they were making all the decisions.”

The news business has to embrace new and different perspectives, King said.

“I think you’ve got to have Black and white and brown and gay, different religions, different backgrounds, so there are some great debates in the newsroom,” King said. “So when they present to the public a reflection of what’s going on in their community, they’re not reflecting a hierarchy – as Nikole [Hannah-Jones] would say, ‘a hierarchy of objectivity.’”

Will a journalism school that increasingly embraces that view ever reconcile with its namesake donor? King said she hopes so. Hussman has been a force for keeping local news alive in his home state of Arkansas, she said, and his love for UNC and its journalism school is something he shares with every student and faculty member.

“I hope at some point there will be a real frank and honest discussion between him and members of the faculty,” King said. “I think he needs to understand our faculty better and we need to know him better. If the pandemic hadn’t happened he’d have been on campus a lot more and wouldn’t be this ethereal figure painted by what many feel was an overstep on his part.”

King, for her part, is now transitioning from dean to professor herself.

As part of that, she said she’s holding onto an important piece of the journalism school’s mission statement.

“We say that we are here to ‘ignite the public conversation in our state, our nation and the world,’” King said. “That is what we do. And I love that.”