Hussman’s gift lifted UNC’s school of journalism. Now it weighs on it

One of the reasons Nikole Hannah-Jones turned down a professorship at UNC’s Hussman School of Journalism and Media could be a problem for its future. The prominent Black journalist said she couldn’t work at a place named for the man who told UNC leaders that he doubted her suitability. Hussman was bothered by Hannah-Jones’ connection to ”The 1619 Project,” a New York Times special report that expressed controversial views on the roles of slavery and race in U.S. history.

Hannah-Jones has moved on to teach about race and journalism at Howard University. But Walter Hussman Jr. – who pledged $25 million to the journalism school and had it named for him in 2019 – is still very much a presence in Chapel Hill. Not only is his name on the school, but his core values of journalism centered around impartiality and objectivity are prominently displayed – and were expected to be engraved – at the entrance of the journalism school.

All this raises questions. If Hannah-Jones couldn’t work under the Hussman banner, will other journalists of color want to teach there? Will minority journalism students be drawn to a university where a key member of the Board of Trustees held up giving tenure to a Pulitzer Prize-winning Black journalist after all her white predecessors in the teaching post received it?

Hussman, a UNC alumnus and publisher of the family-owned Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in Little Rock, spoke to reporters during the uproar over the tenure issue, but he declined say whether an effort to remove his name from the school would affect his financial commitment. “I don’t think any purpose would be served by me speculating about such a hypothetical,” he said in an email.

Rick Edmonds, a media business analyst at the Poynter Institute, did get Hussman to discuss Hannah-Jones’ decision last week and wrote about it. He came away with a sense that Hussman feels he prevailed in the controversy and has no regrets. But, Edmonds said, “I think there is kind of a collision course in that his name is still on the school.”

Deb Aikat, an associate journalism professor at UNC, said the collision is already occurring. “A lot of faculty are angry. They do not want Hussman’s name on the school anymore,” he said. He added that at least one of the school’s leaders has stopped using the Hussman name when referring to the school.

Susan King, dean of the journalism school, was so grateful for Hussman’s pledge that she suggested having the 194 words of his core values chiseled in stone. But she was also excited that Hannah-Jones, who earned a master’s degree at the school in 2003, had agreed to come back as the Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism.

King was angered by Hussman’s meddling in Hannah-Jones’ hiring and she fought to keep her at UNC with tenure, which the trustees did ultimately grant – by a 9-4 vote – after faculty and students rallied behind the journalist.

King appreciates Hussman’s support of journalism in Arkansas and at UNC, but she said he crossed a red line. “He wants to rebuild trust in journalism and so do I, but I told him there is also academic freedom,” she told me. “A donor does not get to determine who is on the faculty and what we teach.”

The Hannah-Jones dispute involved a clash between worthy goals. Hussman wants to make journalism more trustworthy by urging journalists to put aside their biases. Hannah-Jones wants journalists to be more authentic by being honest about their perspective.

Steve Coll, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner and dean of the Columbia University School of Journalism, told me that objectivity is a well intentioned but unattainable goal for journalists.

“The problem starts with the word itself,” he said. “ ’Objectivity’ describes something that isn’t human. We are not objective.” He added, “I would emphasize fairness and being led by the evidence, not by your views.”

Ironically, following his views was Hussman’s misstep. Now few are objective about the champion of objectivity.

Associate opinion editor Ned Barnett can be reached at 919-829-4512, nbarnett@