UNC is intimidating journalism faculty after $25 million contract leaked, group says

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A nonprofit that supports free speech and other rights on college campuses has written UNC-Chapel Hill challenging its probe into how The News & Observer obtained a $25 million donor agreement with Arkansas newspaper publisher Walter Hussman.

UNC officials appear to be training its investigation on “at least” two outspoken journalism professors, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education says in the letter to Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz. Both Daniel Kreiss and Deb Aikat have publicly criticized the university’s handling of the donor agreement and its failed hire of acclaimed New York Times journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones.

“We are concerned that the investigation into these faculty members is predicated on the mere fact that they publicly criticized the university on matters of public concern,” wrote Lindsie Rank, a program officer with FIRE’s Individual Rights Defense Program who is a graduate of UNC’s law and journalism schools.

Rank said neither Kreiss and Aikat would have had access to the donor agreement, which the N&O published in a report July 16. The pair did not publicly criticize the agreement until the N&O had made it public, the letter states.

“Thus, we are concerned that the course of UNC’s investigation as it pertains to faculty members such as Kreiss and Aikat owes its origin to their exercise of protected speech in public criticism of UNC and Walter Hussman, not whether they had access to the agreement,” Rank said.

Kreiss posted a copy of the letter on Twitter Wednesday, thanking the nonprofit for its support.

UNC officials had said it was investigating the release of the donor agreement, but wouldn’t comment on how the probe is being conducted.

“Many of our employees are entrusted with confidential information, pursuant to various state and federal laws and contractual agreements,” said UNC spokeswoman Joanne Peters Denny in an emailed statement. “When that confidentiality is breached, we take it very seriously.”

The journalism school, renamed after Hussman after he committed the $25 million, had sought to hire Hannah-Jones in a tenured position, a step that administrators and faculty supported. But a university trustee held up the hire, records and interviews show, and the administration subsequently offered her a nontenured position, which she initially accepted.

After revelations about the retreat created outrage on campus and nationally, NC trustees voted to offer her a tenured position. Hannah-Jones rejected the post, saying she would become the Knight Chair in Race and Journalism at Howard University instead.

In a previous letter to UNC’s board of trustees dated June 10, FIRE raised questions about how they and university officials handled Hannah-Jones’ hiring. FIRE cited Hussman’s correspondence with one trustee and top university officials. Hussman, a UNC graduate, contended that Hannah-Jones’ hire would draw controversy because of her work on The 1619 Project, which focused on slavery’s legacy in America.

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