Hussman’s letter to UNC chancellor on Nikole Hannah-Jones tenure debate

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Below is the full text of the letter sent to UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz by Walter Hussman Jr., in response to concerns from faculty and staff at the journalism school that Hussman may have tried to influence the hiring of journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones.

The bullet points and italicized text are as reflected in Hussman’s letter.

________________________________________________________________________

July 14, 2021

Dear Chancellor Guskiewicz:

I am writing to reaffirm my commitment to the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, specifically to our agreement concerning the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media, and to set the record straight regarding the Knight Chair.

First things first: my personal and financial commitment to the University remains unshaken. My belief in the importance of the University, as well as its journalism and media programs and values, runs far deeper than any transitory controversy or misunderstanding. It is equally important to emphasize that I have always believed in the importance of academic freedom, and the ability of the faculty and administration to make decisions without interference.

For those very reasons, I believe it is important, not only for me, but for the ability of the school and its faculty to move past this moment, that I provide clarity on this matter.

I did not seek involvement in the matter. To the contrary, Dean Susan King raised the subject with me in a phone call to give me a “heads up” that she was considering Ms. Hannah-Jones for the Knight Chair.

My concerns were grounded in the core values of journalism. As I sought to learn more about Ms. Hannah-Jones, I became more acquainted with the controversy surrounding her leading role in the New York Times’s “1619 Project.” That project, while praised by some, has also been significantly criticized by others, most famously by a group of prominent historians including Gordon Wood, Sean Wilentz and James McPherson. Of perhaps greater concern for a journalism school dedicated to fairness and accuracy is that the Times engaged a noted historian on slavery, Leslie Harris, a professor at Northwestern University, to be the fact checker, and after she told them of serious factual inaccuracies regarding the Project’s assertion that the American Revolution was fought to protect slavery (the source of the historians’ objection as well), the Times decided to publish it anyway.

The concerns i expressed were rooted entirely in the core values of honesty, accuracy and impartiality, which are closely associated both with me and the school. I felt it was appropriate for me, as for any alumnus, to convey them to the dean. After it became clear that Dean King did not view those concerns as seriously as I did, I shared them via private emails to a very limited number of other individuals, with no intention for them to be made public or given broader circulation. In fact, I declined to share them with the wider board even after someone urged me to do so and provided to me the email addresses of all the members. I took no further action.

There was no threat or quid pro quo, express or implied. When I shared those concerns, it was never my intention to imply that my financial support of the school would be contingent on the outcome of the matter. I regret not making that clearer at the time, and I have done so on numerous occasions since.

I respect academic freedom and the appropriate boundaries for major donors. As I have said previously, I have great respect for the tradition of academic freedom and I have no desire to transgress appropriate boundaries. While I believe every alumnus/a has the right to speak up on matters of importance to them, I realize, in retrospect, that as a major donor my words may be perceived differently from others. And that it may be better in the future to make more explicit the absence of any connection between any views I may express and my long-term financial commitment to the institution.

After expressing my concerns, I took no further action in objecting to Ms. Hannah-Jones’s hiring or the decision to grant her tenure. After I expressed my concerns in late 2020, told University leaders that I understood the decision was entirely up to the University and that my support would be unaffected. I have lived up to that promise, and I hope that the University will similarly honor the promises it made in our agreement, particularly with respect to the statement of core values. I would like to clarify that these core values are not just my own. They are principles that have been debated and honed over many decades by those in the news profession. It is my hope that the debate and discussion on these values will continue within and outside our school for many years to come.

It is my earnest desire that the University and the Hussman School emerge from this unfortunate experience in a better place, and that we all use it as a teachable moment. Certainly, I have learned something about the special implications of being a major donor, and I hope all of us have learned the value of nuance, the importance of separating facts and assumptions, the value of reasoned discussion, and the virtues of agreeing to disagree.

Finally, I want to express my continued support for you and the University’s leadership at this challenging time. I would be happy to meet with you, the provost, other leaders, and members of the faculty to help clear the air and enable all of us to move forward to accomplish the important goals we all share.

Sincerely,

Signature: Walter Hussman Jr., Class of 1968

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