UNC journalism faculty express dismay over prominent display of Hussman’s ‘core values’

Faculty members of UNC’s Hussman School of Journalism and Media gathered Wednesday to express their discomfort with a prominent display of Walter Hussman Jr.’s statement of values in the lobby of the school and on its website.

After the meeting, the statement was removed from the school’s website.

Hussman, the journalism school’s top donor and namesake, has played a central role in the controversy surrounding the recruitment of Nikole Hannah-Jones, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, to the journalism school.

Hannah-Jones ultimately chose not to come to UNC after a tumultuous battle over granting her tenure, and cited Hussman’s role as one of her many reasons for taking a job at Howard University instead.

As a condition of his $25 million donation, Hussman, the publisher of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and a UNC alumnus, required that his statement of values — a collection of beliefs on how journalism should be conducted — be displayed in granite within the school.

Faculty say the display gives the impression those statements are values of the school and its faculty, and in a draft of a statement seen by The News & Observer, faculty wrote it should be removed or given more context. The draft also said Hussman’s actions had been harmful to the school’s reputation.

During a town hall on Wednesday, which was attended by around 70 people, no vote was taken on the statement and it is still being revised.

Kate Sheppard, a teaching associate professor at the journalism school, said Wednesday’s meeting was “a productive conversation ... that shed light on a lot of concerns and thoughts about how we might proceed.”

“I am heartened,” she added, “that Dean (Susan) King has elected to take Walter Hussman Jr.’s ‘Statement of Core Values’ off our school website as they were previously displayed, (and) as we discuss how those words should be represented going forward.”

A diverse range of opinions was shared at the meeting, said journalism professor Ryan Thornburg, who noted that the school’s teaching concentrations range from journalism to public relations and advertising. But “I think there is consensus that donors should not be involved in the hiring process,” he said.

Shannon McGregor, a professor at the school who researches social media, said many faculty were disappointed they had no input on what was included in Hussman’s contract.

“At the end of the day our greatest quarrel with all of this,” she said, “is there was not a process that involved all stakeholders when these values were put up.”

She said faculty members didn’t know what was in the contract until an N&O report on the contract was published Wednesday afternoon.

Following the meeting, however, the statement of core values was removed from the school’s website, and Dean Susan King told attendees she would explore options with lawyers about what the school can do with the display in the lobby, according to people who attended.

In a message to the N&O, King said, “It was a good meeting that really aired many concerns of faculty and staff.” She did not answer follow-up questions.

Hussman has drawn the ire of faculty after he expressed his concerns about the hiring of Hannah-Jones and her work on The 1619 Project for The New York Times. Hussman emailed his concerns to several UNC-CH officials, which many interpreted as an attempt to influence the school’s decision making. And faculty have raised concerns that the presence of Hussman’s name on the school could hurt future recruitment and retention of students and faculty.

Hannah-Jones said his interference was part of the reason she didn’t join UNC-CH.

“It became clear to me at that point I couldn’t maintain my dignity and work for a school bearing his name,” Hannah-Jones told The News & Observer last week.

Visitors of UNC-Chapel Hill walk up the steps of Carroll Hall, the building housing the Hussman School of Journalism and Media, in Chapel Hill, N.C. on Wednesday, July 14, 2021.

In a letter to UNC Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz on Wednesday, Hussman said he remains committed to his donation to the school, but added he hopes the school honors the giving contract he signed.

“I told University leaders that I understood the decision was entirely up to the University and that my support would be unaffected,” he wrote. “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.”

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