Controversial UNC journalism donor Hussman comes to campus, but isn’t meeting faculty

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Walter Hussman Jr., the UNC-Chapel Hill donor who came under fire for meddling in the hire and controversial tenure case for journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones, is expected to be back on campus this week.

But it’s a subtle return to his namesake, the Hussman School of Journalism and Media, that doesn’t include a meeting with the school’s faculty.

Instead, he’ll be meeting with a small group of administrators and just one professor off campus.

“We intend to leave the meeting with a roadmap for working through our differences that is agreeable to Faculty and Mr. Hussman,” UNC-CH professor Steven King wrote in an email to his journalism school colleagues Monday explaining their plans to meet.

‘This is problematic’

At least one faculty member, journalism professor Deb Aikat, isn’t happy that this “hush-hush” meeting is happening. He said Hussman’s visit to campus is “shrouded in secrecy and lack of transparency, accountability and honesty,” which concerns faculty.

“We have never had such a situation where we had a secret meeting with a donor after the donor had some very questionable interactions, not only with a prospective hire but his comments in the media,” Aikat said. “This is problematic.”

Those “questionable interactions” exploded this summer during the national controversy about tenure for Hannah-Jones, a Pulitzer Prize-winning Black journalist who was set to join the UNC-CH journalism faculty as a Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism this fall.

During the hiring process, Hussman questioned her work on The 1619 Project, which reframes the legacy of slavery and Black Americans in the United States. He was criticized for sharing his concerns with top UNC-CH administrators and decision-makers. He later stood by them, but has repeatedly said he did not pressure anyone regarding hiring Hannah-Jones.

It’s unclear how much influence Hussman really had, but he had recently given the school a $25 million donation that put his name on the school. Hussman’s daughter, Eliza Hussman Gaines, is also a member of the school’s foundation board, which raises and manages private money for the school.

Images of Walter Hussman and his wife, Ben, meeting with Susan King, the dean of UNC’s School of Media and Journalism, at their home in Carmel, California, on August 6, 2019. The School of Media and Journalism will now be known as the Hussman School of Journalism and Media following a $25 million gift by alumnus Walter Hussman. (Johnny Andrews/UNC-Chapel Hill)
Images of Walter Hussman and his wife, Ben, meeting with Susan King, the dean of UNC’s School of Media and Journalism, at their home in Carmel, California, on August 6, 2019. The School of Media and Journalism will now be known as the Hussman School of Journalism and Media following a $25 million gift by alumnus Walter Hussman. (Johnny Andrews/UNC-Chapel Hill)

Hussman’s money also came with strings attached. The deal required that his statement of core values about how journalism should be conducted be etched in granite and displayed prominently within the school. Many journalism faculty were bothered by that after learning about Hussman’s role in Hannah-Jones’ tenure case.

And they’re still looking for clarity on donor agreements and interference.

Ultimately, Hannah-Jones turned down the UNC-CH job, partly because of Hussman. She said she couldn’t maintain her dignity and work for a school bearing his name.

Instead, she took a job as the inaugural Knight Chair at Howard University, an historically Black university.

Faculty concerns with Hussman visit

In preparation for Hussman’s visit to campus, full-time faculty were given a survey asking them about a potential meeting with Hussman.

They said they wanted to talk about UNC-CH’s tenure and hiring process, “new thinking about the future of journalism/ethics,” the values of the non-journalism areas of the school and the damage done to the school’s reputation, according to the survey analysis obtained by The News & Observer. The report was put together by Dean Susan King’s cabinet members and shared this week.

The majority of the 31 faculty members who responded were interested in meeting with the donor through an open, in-person moderated forum that included faculty and staff. Some suggested a private meeting to avoid raising tensions and media attention. And a handful said they were not interested in meeting at all.

A banner identifying the Hussman School of Journalism and Media at UNC-Chapel Hill hangs above the steps of Carroll Hall in Chapel Hill, N.C., pictured here on Wednesday, July 14, 2021.
A banner identifying the Hussman School of Journalism and Media at UNC-Chapel Hill hangs above the steps of Carroll Hall in Chapel Hill, N.C., pictured here on Wednesday, July 14, 2021.

While some faculty members wanted to give Hussman an opportunity to “explain his position first-hand, unfiltered by the media,” others said they were skeptical that he is interested in “listening to, or understanding, the faculty perspective.”

Some want to know why he stepped into the conversation about Hannah-Jones and how Hussman views his role as a donor. Others are looking for a promise that he won’t interfere in future hiring processes and an outright apology, according to the report.

Faculty members also argued there was no value in a meeting. They either feared it might make the situation worse, they said they were clear on Hussman’s position or that such a meeting was fit for the development office, not faculty, according to the report.

Professor Steven King was asked to moderate a faculty discussion with Hussman during this visit, according to the email to faculty.

“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.

He suggested postponing the larger faculty discussion, and offered this alternative where he plans to share faculty concerns with Hussman.

Those attendees expected to meet with Hussman are Steven King, Dean Susan King, Associate Dean for Development and Alumni Affairs Danita Morgan, Senior Associate Dean for Undergraduate Studies Charlie Tuggle and Senior Associate Dean for Graduate Studies Heidi Hennink-Kominski.

Hussman and Dean Susan King did not respond to requests for an interview. Steven King declined to comment.

Walter Hussman Jr.’s name appears on a “statement of core values” that can be seen on the wall in the lobby of Carroll Hall in Chapel Hill, N.C., the building housing the Hussman School of Journalism and Media, pictured here on Wednesday, July 14, 2021.
Walter Hussman Jr.’s name appears on a “statement of core values” that can be seen on the wall in the lobby of Carroll Hall in Chapel Hill, N.C., the building housing the Hussman School of Journalism and Media, pictured here on Wednesday, July 14, 2021.

Moving forward with Hussman

Aikat said journalism school leadership tried to cherry-pick faculty to join the private meeting with Hussman, but faculty members declined. He believes the school’s faculty should meet with Hussman in an open session to resolve unanswered questions about the school’s journalism values and the Hannah-Jones situation.

Otherwise, this visit will just enable Hussman to say he talked with UNC-CH leaders and faculty and moving on, without any actual accountability, Aikat said.

In his email, King asked for time on the agenda of the next faculty meeting to update, inform and answer questions about the plan to move forward with Hussman. He plans to ask faculty members to nominate and vote on a leader and committee, approved by the dean, to work on that plan.

“Donors are vital to our success, and so are autonomy and academic freedom,” King wrote. “I believe we can maintain these essential values while also encouraging current and future donors to generously support our worthwhile endeavors.”

Most of Hussman’s $25 million gift has not been paid out yet, and he has assured the university that his personal and financial commitment to the school “remains unshaken.”

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